© Joseph Pitt and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Pitt was interviewed via Skype by Laureano Ralon on March 26th, 2011
Dr. Joseph Pitt earned his Ph.D. at University of Western Ontario. He has major research interests in history and philosophy of science and technology, with an emphasis on the impact of technologies on scientific change. His historical interests include Galileo, Hume, and American pragmatism. He is author of several books and numerous articles in the history and philosophy of science and technology. He is Founding Editor of the journal Perspectives on Science: Historical, Philosophical, Social, published by MIT Press, and currently Editor-in-Chief of Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology. Winner of the Alumni Teaching Award and a member of Virginia Tech’s Academy of Teaching Excellence, he teaches regularly at introductory, advanced undergraduate, and graduate levels in philosophy of science and technology and epistemology.
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
When I went to college in 1962, I had a game plan. I was going to major in political science, then go to Law School, and then return to N.Y.C and get into politics. But when I took my first philosophy course, Frank McDonald addressed the class during the week in which people were supposed to select their majors (he had gone through all the majors in the college, and finally, he talked about philosophy during the last five minutes). Frank said: “if you want to spend your life trying to solve problems that have been asked for 3000 years, and wrestle with people that are much smarter than you and to no avail, then by all means, major in philosophy. But you are doomed to a life of frustration.” And he turned around and walked out of the room. It was as if he had been fly-fishing and he put that hook right on the back of my head. So I decided not to major in political science but to major in philosophy, and I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do. Then I found out that there was a developing field called the Philosophy of Law, so I figured that that could put a couple of my interests together. I went to Duke University to do Philosophy of Law, but discovered that the Duke department was not one in which I felt welcome. I was ready to leave philosophy, but then a series of events led me to Canada (The University of Western Ontario); it was 1968. I went there but they didn’t do philosophy of law; they did philosophy of science. Well, since I was interested in how to use the Law to affect social change, and they were working on scientific change, I figured that I might be able to take what I would learn from them and apply it to social change.
You mentioned not feeling welcome at Duke University. Would you like to elaborate on that?
My undergraduate environment was one in which the doors to the professors’ offices were open, and people were more than willing to sit down and have a conversation. We had a lot of fun and you could joke and laugh about philosophical issues or the stupidity of somebody. When I went to Duke, we were informed that if you wanted to see a professor, you would make an appointment with the secretary two weeks ahead of time; that all the professors would be addressed as “Doctor,” and I was personally criticized a number of times for making jokes, for example, “that curious passage by Hume in the appendix.” That was simply frowned upon – you didn’t make fun of philosophy.
Do you think that’s more of a European style?
You mean the formality of it? Well, I think it went beyond that. I had already approached a political science department in Chapel Hill, which was ten miles away, about becoming a graduate student in their program – and I had been accepted into that. But April 4th was Martin Luther King’s assassination, then in June Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, and in July my wife and I were sitting watching the democratic convention when the Chicago police decided to beat the crap out of a bunch of young kids. So I turned to her and said: “I can’t stay here anymore.” We were going to Canada no matter what. Now, before leaving for Canada, I asked Duke if I could write a Master’s Degree, because I didn’t want to have nothing to show for those two years. So I wrote a master’s degree but they rejected it. When I got to Western Ontario, one of the professors that had moved up there at the same time I did had been at Duke, and he wanted to know what had happened about the master’s. I told them it had been rejected and handed my thesis over to him for consideration: “you read it and make your own decision.” About three weeks later I received a master’s degree from Western Ontario in the mail. I did not know that was coming…
What other memories do you have from the time you spent at The University of Western Ontario?
Well, the department was completely different in atmosphere from Duke; it was very welcoming, very informal, which didn’t mean that we didn’t take our philosophy seriously – we did, but we could also joke about it. There was a tremendous amount of support by the Faculty for the graduate students. And the place was exciting: they run a conference a year at least; the department made a concerted effort to bring outside Faculty in, not just to give talks but to teach a course for a semester or a year. It was a very dynamic atmosphere and the graduate students themselves were a very close group.
Joshua Meyrowitz’ thesis in No Sense of Place is that when media change, situations and roles change. In your experience, how did the role of university professor evolve since you were an undergraduate student?
Your use of the term “evolve” in the question suggests that there has been some improvement. I just want to suggest to you that there has been perhaps some positive changes, but also negative ones. I do believe that today university faculty (not everybody of course, maybe not even 50% – but more faculty) are increasingly concerned about making sure that their students when they graduate can find a job. It has become increasingly part of the professor’s role to assist the student in finding a job; that was not the case in the past, especially with undergraduates; you got your degree and you left, you found a job. That has definitely changed. And there has also been change with respect to graduate relations. When I was department head here, I instituted a brown bag for the graduate students which continues to this day, and that brown bag was designed to address professionalism issues: how do you conduct yourself in an interview; how do you make your case to get into a PhD program; how to put together a resume; should you be publishing before you finish your degree; how do you become a member of a department once you arrive on the spot, and those kinds of issues. But even more important than that is teaching: increasingly, graduate departments are spending time teaching their teaching assistants how to teach. I have four TAs that work with me on my intro course in the Fall with 300 undergraduates. We meet once a week to discuss what went right and what went wrong the previous week; what kind of questions the students were interested in; how to answer a question you don’t know how to answer – that is, teaching students to say “I don’t know, I’ll get back to you.” So these are all positive changes.
On the negative side, there is a serious competition among American Universities to achieve some sort of break out status away from the pack. There has been a lot of talk about this in the Chronicles of Higher Education, but it looks as though we are headed towards a system that is thoroughly bifurcated. On the one end you have thirty or forty universities that pretty much suck in all the research money; on the other hand you have the teaching university. At the research universities side of things, the emphasis is on research and getting grants, and that means that the students tend to suffer from lack of attention. So it’s almost paradoxical: on the one hand you have more attention being paid to certain aspects of students lives, like getting jobs; on the other hand, you have lack of attention because of the pressure on the faculty to publish for grants.
Do you feel as though professors are increasingly being treated as service providers?
No, not as service providers, the emphasis is on research; you’re seen more as a researcher than a teacher. And what you find, especially in urban universities, is an enormous rise in the number of part-time instructors and adjunct professors that do the teaching.
What about student-professor relations? Do you think that students expect more from you than in the past?
Well, the attitude, particularly in this generation of students, is very demanding. They come in with the mistaken assumption that somehow they are paying my salary, and therefore they can expect more things from me – even to the effect of dictating what the content of the course should be. And sometimes it’s necessary to disabuse them from that idea.
What makes a good teacher today?
I think the best teachers are the ones who are not only enthusiastic about their subject matter, but manage to convey their enthusiasm to their students. You can present a crystal clear lecture that conveys and incredible amount of information, but if you do it in a monotone way without indicating that “this is exciting, this is cool” the students are not going to learn. So that’s it: enthusiasm about their subject matter.
What advice would you give to young graduate students and aspiring university professors?
For graduate students the advice is: you don’t have a life. You are a graduate student 24/07. For the most part you need to become completely consumed by your work and get done fast. The more you stay in graduate school, the more you lose your enthusiasm and you never finish.
For aspiring young professors, learn to integrate your professional interests, your career interests, and your personal life. And above all, do not sacrifice your personal life for your career, because if you do that you are going to spend a lot of time being very miserable in the context of splitting relationships, divorces, and all of that is going to take away from your professional life. So take care of home first, whatever that may mean. Another important thing is networking: both at your home university, not only in your department but outside your department. And get to know people in your profession, ask questions, etc.
A couple of years ago you wrote a scholarly piece entitled “Don’t Talk to Me,” iPod and Philosophy (2008). I wonder how you manage to command attention in the classroom in an “age of interruption” characterized by attention deficit and information overload…
Well, the syllabus for my intro course reads “no computers” and “turn off your cell phones.” I go so far as to say: “if I find you with your cell phone on, this is what’s going happen…” I take an old BlackBerry I use and I smash it against the wall. And then you hear 300 heartbeats stop….
What kind of reactions do you get from the students?
Total silence! So my response to your phrase “the age of interruption” is to get rid of the distractions. So “turn off your phones, shut down your computers.” Now, I do have a new problem that I encountered for the first time last Fall, and I don’t know how to handle it in the future. A student came up to me and said: “you don’t want me to use my computer, but I downloaded all my books in there; all my books are e-books.” So I don’t know what do to about that yet, other than to put a Gestapo in the back of the class to make sure it’s their textbook they are looking at and not a porno site – which actually happened. So, one solution is to get rid of the distractions. Another solution is, especially in intro courses where many of the students don’t want to be there but get into their majors and get the real stuff, you have to become an entertainer. You have to learn how to do a song and dance; you have to keep moving; you have to walk up and down the aisles of the classroom. If you stand there in front of the podium and occasionally nod your head, they are doing to fall asleep.
What about storytelling – is that important?
I think it’s very important. I actually use a lot of science fiction stories in my intro courses. Telling personal anecdotes is also good where appropriate. I also make a concerted effort not to let them know what I think about the different authors we are reading. And I warn them ahead of time: “I’m going to contradict myself. One day I’ll say this is brilliant, the next day I’ll say this is garbage, so don’t try to cite me out in the exams; don’t try to tell me what you think I want to hear – what I want to hear from you is an argument!” The last day of class I label it “truth day” and I let them ask me anything within reason and I’ll answer it truthfully. The first question in the last 25 years is “do you believe in God?”
And what’s the answer?
“Why should I?” That aggravates them.
Let’s change the subject. I would like you to tell me a little bit about your approach to philosophy of technology. Do you consider yourself an instrumentalist, a technological determinist, substantivist à la Heidegger/Ellul, a critical theorist like Feenberg, a post-phenomenologist like Ihde?
I am a philosophical pragmatist, hence the title of the forthcoming book: Doing Philosophy of Technology; essays in a pragmatic spirit (Amsterdam: Springer, 2011).
Would you give us a sneak peak?
Well, it’s a collection of essays that range over a fairly long period of time. Many of them are re-written, not entirely but in a substantive sense. I’ve divided the book into four parts: philosophy and technology and society, something on methodology, something on explanation, and then something on nanotechnology. The introduction is brand new, and I prefaced it with a quote from the beginning paragraph from Nelson Goodman’s preface to the Ways of Worldmaking, which ends with the claims that it isn’t so much what’s been found, but the journey that is important.
The following question was drafted by Professor R. Kevin Hill: “You seem to have begun your career with an interest in Wilfrid Sellars, and this interest seems to be a continuing one. Can you tell us something about how your engagement with Sellars has informed your thinking, especially in connection with pragmatism? You have said that it is ‘pragmatism all the way down now.’ How does your view differ from others who have made similar claims, for example, Rorty? Does this relate to your call for a dialogue between engineers and philosophers? Would you say today’s American philosopher is a pragmatist manqué absent this dialogue?”
My dissertation was on Sellars; I wrote a book on Sellars; I ran a conference on Sellars; I produced an edited book on him, and just recently, this year, I wrote a paper on Sellars. The graduate students also ask for a reading group on Sellars, and we meet once a week. To be perfectly honest, my engagement with Sellars has informed my thinking in deep and profound ways of many kinds; sometimes I don’t even realize how influenced I have been by Sellars. Maybe not by specific doctrines, though there are a couple that I find that I rely on a lot, but by his philosophical stance – particularly coming off of the introduction to Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man. In there he says that “things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” Sellars was a systems builder in an age of analytic philosophers who never managed to get passed a 50 page articles with a lot of logic chopping. He wanted to put all the pieces together; not just the philosophical pieces, but philosophy with sciences, philosophy with art, philosophy with science. Now, his pragmatism is far more limited than mine. His pragmatism, I think I can say safely, is restricted primarily to Pierce’s theory of meaning – that the meaning of the term or the meaning of an expression is to be found in a set of inferences that you can draw from it. You see the echoes of that sentiment in a lot of his work on meaning. In his Ethics, you find the emphasis there on action, and that is certainly me. I said that “it’s pragmatism all the way down” in a presentation I have and it was meant as a direct response to the social constructivists in sociology, who claim that reality has nothing to do with the claims science make because what scientists do is engage in a endless battle of power. In that presentation I suggested that “it’s action all the way down” – it’s what you do all the way down that matters. And Rorty did not make that claim! The trouble with using terms like “pragmatist” or “empiricist” or “rationalist”, is that you can lump people under those categories for maybe one or two things they say – but they say other things as well! There are a lot of people who call themselves pragmatists with whom I would agree, and a lot of them with whom I would disagree. It’s like looking at the traditional group of British empiricists: Locke, Berkeley, Hume. Well, for goodness sake, in what sense was Berkeley an empiricist? He was an idealist. So, I have a great affinity with, for example, Albert Borgmann; he and I are on the same page together on a lot of issues, but not on everything. Finally, engineers in the end have to build things and make things that work; scientists don’t. If philosophy is love of wisdom, and wisdom is related to how we act in the world to make the world a better place, then philosophers ought to be talking to engineers because they are explicitly concerned with making the world a better place. And we should be interested in how they think they do it and whether or not the models that they employ are models that we can use to get a better understanding of successful action in the world.
I interviewed Don Ihde a few months ago, who has this interesting categorization: he talks about “Praxis Philosophies,” which he defines as a family of philosophies for which a “theory of action” takes precedence over a “theory of knowledge.” He includes Marxism, Pragmatism, Phenomenology, and Existentialism, among others…
Well, are there any phenomenologists who are action oriented?
There is Heidegger…
Well, if you understand him well enough to be able to say that, good for you. I have tried for year, so I will just confess ignorance. I find him impenetrable. But the question is: do you need a theory of action before you need a theory of knowledge? Well, if you take page three of C.I. Lewis’ An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation, he says specifically that “the mark of knowledge is successful action,” which may entail that you need to know what successful action is first. And that may be the case; Ihde may be right about that. The worry that I have with that is that you can get really bogged down in trivializing accounts of what counts as an action. It’s the how-many-angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin kind of debate that makes me very frustrated. And I’ll just go with Samuel Johnson’s alleged refutation of Berkeley when he picked the stone: he said “there, that’s real!” I don’t need a deep philosophical analysis here. I think at one point I’ve been referred to as a common sense pragmatist, and it’s the emphasis on common sense that I would be willing to embrace.
What would you say is the most fundamental difference between pragmatism and neo-pragmatism? Was somebody like Richard Rorty a pragmatist in your view?
Rorty was not a pragmatist and he was not a philosopher after the publication of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. I’ve known Richard Rorty since I was a graduate student. He was a student of Sellars; I did my dissertation on Sellars. You saw just the tiniest bit of light of what he was to become at the end of his introduction of The Linguistic Turn, an anthology which I think was published in 1963. But after Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature he gave up doing philosophy, and he instead pontificated. When he was at Virginia he came down here for a talk, after which I said to him: “Listen Dick, if what you just said is what you really believe and you were in France, you would be driving a cab and not making a miserable salary as a university professor.” He just laughed. So I basically object to him being labeled a pragmatist.
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