Philosophy at Pitt: Three Sites of Inquiry

Issue Date: 
October 29, 2012

The story of the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Philosophy reflects the larger story of the University. After World War II, the captains of Pittsburgh’s industry committed themselves to transforming the University from a commuter college into a center of rigorous intellectual research and training. 

It should come as no surprise then that in 1956, when Edward Litchfield was appointed chancellor, he had a mandate to effect that transformative change, and he, in turn, appointed Charles H. Peake vice chancellor for the academic disciplines. By the end of the decade, Peake had articulated a strategy to improve Pitt’s status within the humanities by attracting to the University a coterie of young scholars who were just beginning to make waves in the world of philosophy. This marked the beginning of a dramatic shift in purpose and scholarship at Pitt. 

“Until about 50 years ago,” says Distinguished Service Professor of Philosophy Robert Brandom, “there were a handful of elite universities maintaining uniformly excellent academic departments across the board, and the vast majority of world-class scholars, researchers, and experts in their fields were to be found in them. But now any serious American research university can be expected to have some world-class departments, and most of the departments will have at least some world-class faculty members. Because of Charlie Peake’s early commitment to philosophy, Pittsburgh was in the vanguard of this sea change.” 

With the help of Pitt’s Andrew Mellon Professor of Philosophy of Science Adolf Grünbaum, the results soon exceeded Peake’s most optimistic ambitions, as the University of Pittsburgh Department of Philosophy quickly earned a nearly unparalleled reputation as a preeminent new center for research within the field. 
In time, some of the most distinguished names within the realm of 20th-century scholarship joined the department, including the late Professors Wilfred Sellars, Carl Hempel, Kurt Baier, and Wesley Salmon. The many doctoral students they educated now occupy important positions across the contemporary philosophical scene, while their successors at Pitt carry on their tradition of excellence in scholarship and teaching.

The University expanded its philosophical offerings by establishing the world‑renowned Center for Philosophy of Science in 1960 and the independent Department of History and Philosophy of Science in 1971. Along with the philosophy department, these academic sites enhance and develop philosophical inquiry at the University of Pittsburgh and in the larger academic community.

Department of Philosophy
Since 1963, Pitt’s philosophy department has consistently been ranked in the top five philosophy departments nationally (National Research Council, The Leiter Report). The department is currently the intellectual home of 19 primary faculty members and more than 50 graduate students. Fifteen secondary and affiliated faculty members also contribute to the life and scholarship of the program.

Among the top U.S. departments, Pittsburgh has most consistently strived to maintain a broad coverage of key research interests, ranging from technical studies in logic and science to ethics and aesthetics.


Research in philosophical logic has been a mainstay of the philosophy department since its founding days, and many of the pioneering discoveries that later proved important in computer science were developed at Pitt by the late Professor Alan Ross Anderson and by Nuel D. Belnap, Jr., Alan Ross Anderson Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, professor of History and Philosophy of Science, and fellow of the Center for Philosophy of Science. Today, allied investigations relating to the concept of “truth” are being pursued by a number of faculty members, including Assistant Professor James Shaw, Brandom (who also is a fellow of the Center for Philosophy of Science), and Department of Philosophy Chair Anil Gupta, a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, professor of history and philosophy of science, and a fellow of the Center for Philosophy of Science. In recent years, Gupta (who now occupies the Alan Ross Anderson Chair in logic) has applied some of the tools that he and Belnap developed with respect to truth to the behaviors of epistemological terms such as “experience” and “content.”

Gupta’s new work can be viewed as continuing the epistemological objectives that underpinned the research of the late Wilfred Sellars, one of the department’s important early members who is now widely regarded as a great thinker within 20th-century American philosophy. 

Both Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy John McDowell and Brandom have also attempted to combine Sellars’ insights with other vital sources of philosophical traditions. In particular, McDowell and Brandom (sometimes referred to, as in the subtitle of a recent book, as “the Pittsburgh neo-Hegelians”) have been at the forefront of a recent revival of interest in Hegel that, in conjunction with a parallel rediscovery of Kant, has stood behind some of the most stimulating developments within English-language philosophy over the last 40 years. McDowell is also one of the most important interpreters of the thought of Ludwig Wittgenstein. His synthesis of these concerns with a reading of Aristotle have sparked a contemporary neo-Aristotelian movement (in which Pitt Professor of Philosophy Michael Thompson is a principal player), which began in ethics and has spread to metaphysics.

Gupta, McDowell, and Brandom have come to different conclusions as they’ve sifted through Sellars’ philosophical legacy, and their continuing—and friendly—conversations about epistemological issues frame one of the most stimulating interchanges occurring within contemporary philosophy. McDowell’s book Mind and World and Brandom’s book Making It Explicit are read widely in philosophy departments everywhere, and both have achieved the rare honor of receiving Distinguished Achievement Awards from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation—the highest academic honor currently available to philosophers. In addition, McDowell and Brandom are among the six departmental members elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (AAAS), the highest number of AAAS honorees within any unit of the University.

Normative Study

Another grand Pittsburgh tradition is the field of normative study. Several of the central figures within late-20th-century ethics—the late Professor Kurt Baier, Professor Emeritus David Gauthier, and Allan Gibbard (now at the University of Michigan)—taught at Pitt, and their work is continued today by McDowell, Thompson, Professor of Philosophy Kieran Setiya, and Assistant Professor of Philosophy Karl Schafer. 

The interests of these scholars range widely, but their proposals tend to be strongly informed by a rich appreciation of the field’s history. In these endeavors, the moral theorists have profited greatly from the presence of several specialists who have concentrated upon the history of ethics, including Professor of Philosophy Stephen Engstrom and recently hired Assistant Professor of Philosophy Kristen Inglis. 
Engstrom’s recent book, The Form of Practical Knowledge, has already gained a reputation as a vital contribution to our understanding of Kant’s moral thought.

Philosophy of Science

Although Pittsburgh’s philosophy of science core offerings now reside within the sister Department of History and Philosophy of Science, the philosophy department has continued to maintain its own stable of specialists in the subject, especially those who focus on scientific issues related to metaphysics and philosophy of mathematics. Professor Kenneth Manders, who is a fellow of the Center for Philosophy of Science and has a secondary appointment with the History and Philosophy of Science, specializes in the history of geometry and algebra. Assistant Professor of Philosophy Giovanni Valente (also a fellow of the Center for Philosophy of Science) explores the baffling mysteries of quantum physics and statistical mechanics. Mark Wilson and Professor of Philosophy Robert Batterman (an associate director of the Center for Philosophy of Science) have recently become interested in the philosophical salience of recent work within materials science. They feel that such studies open fresh avenues of approach with respect to many standard philosophical concerns within metaphysics and philosophy of mind. 

Whatever their specific interests, the department’s philosophy of science faculty contingent strongly feels that its investigations need to be continually tempered by an appreciation of how allied proposals have unfolded within the history of ideas. Here they rely, just as its ethicists do, upon the strong group of local historians, both within the department proper and elsewhere in the University (many of whom serve as valued adjuncts to the philosophy department). Engstrom, Brandom, Associate Professsor of Philosophy Anja Juaernig (also a fellow of the Center for Philosophy of Science), and Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Center for Philosophy of Science Cochair Nicholas Rescher are the linchpins of the department’s Early Modern coverage, while James Allen—a professor of Philosophy and fellow of the Center for Philosophy of Science—and Inglis handle the Ancients (with help from their colleagues in Pitt’s interdisciplinary Classics, Philosophy, and Ancient Science program).

McDowell, Wilson, and Professor of Philosophy Thomas Ricketts concentrate upon more recent historical developments within the analytic tradition. Pitt’s University Library System Archives of Scientific Philosophy is world renowned for its extensive historical holdings in 20th-century analytic philosophy, and Ricketts, in particular, consults these materials in his trailblazing research into the thought of Rudolf Carnap and Ludwig Wittgenstein. 

In reflecting on the scope of philosophical inquiry, Rescher observes that “philosophy in the modern period pursues an ongoing negotiation between two powers. On the one hand, we have the immense history of serious thought on philosophical issues that we inherit from our great forefathers, from Plato and Aristotle down to the last century. On the other, there is the rest of the world of learning... .” The “rest of the world of learning” encompasses every area of human endeavor, ranging from physics to logic to language, from ethics to biology to mathematics. 

The central task of a philosophy department is to explore these entangled histories, purposes, methods, and biases with a critical eye. By nearly every objective measure, the Pitt philosophy department has continued to live up to its established reputation with respect to those multifaceted scholarly objectives. 

Department of History and Philosophy of Science

Pitt’s strength in philosophical inquiry resides, in part, in its Department of History and Philosophy of Science. Pitt is the top-ranked program (the only program in “Group One”) in general philosophy of science, according to the Philosophical Gourmet Report, an American academic survey that asks top experts to rank the philosophy departments in the English-speaking world. Pitt has held this position, without peer, since 2004, when the current ranking structure was introduced. 
Today, the Department of History and Philosophy of Science comprises nine primary faculty members, six research or emeritus faculty members, and about 30 graduate students who hail from around the globe. The department offers an undergraduate major in the history and philosophy of science, often taken as a second major with one in the sciences; an undergraduate certificate program in Conceptual Foundations of Medicine; and an internationally esteemed PhD program. 

The department’s scholars believe that the study of the history and philosophy of science affords a broad appreciation of science, its nature and fundamentals, its origins, and its place in politics, culture, and society. In the history of science, historical methods—including archival research, interview, and experiment reenactments—are used to develop an understanding of how the sciences originated, how they were practiced, how they developed, and how they related to their intellectual and social contexts. In philosophy of science, the sciences themselves are brought under philosophical scrutiny. Scholars investigate the nature of science in general; what distinguishes scientific activity; how theories explain and are confirmed, and whether they should be read literally; and the moral dilemmas raised by the sciences. Scholars also investigate the conceptual content of individual sciences and how this bears on the following ancient philosophical questions: What is the nature of space, time, and matter? What is life? What is thought? The history and philosophy of science discipline is distinctive in integrating these areas of study.
Many History and Philosophy of Science graduate students come to the program with graduate degrees or undergraduate majors in the sciences, and those who don’t are encouraged to do master’s level work in a scientific field while working toward their History and Philosophy of Science doctorate.

“We tend to get two kinds of graduate students,” says Professor and Department Chair Sandra Mitchell, who specializes in the philosophy of biology and is a secondary faculty member in the Department of Philosophy. “Many come from backgrounds in the sciences, and they find that what really excites them are questions that are conceptual or methodological. The other kind comes from the study of philosophy, and they have found during their studies that the epistemological questions—How do we know what we know?—can be studied by investigating the history and current practice of science.”

The topics that department scholars explore exhibit a range of interests in philosophy of science, from significant historical discoveries to the cutting edge of contemporary science. The department has several areas of concentration that highlight scholars’ expertise, though all History and Philosophy of Science faculty travel among these categories and engage with general questions in philosophy of science.

The Department of History and Philosophy of Science’s excellence is known across the globe, evident in the many lectures given by its faculty in China, Australia, Germany, England, Italy, Estonia, France, Turkey, and elsewhere. Its graduate students are drawn from the very best in the world; they complete a rigorous program and go on to help shape the field. Its undergraduates have received many of the most prestigious awards given to students, including Rhodes, Marshall, Mellon Humanities, Fulbright, Udall, Truman, and Goldwater scholarships. Science is increasingly important in daily life. The study of its history, its foundations, its logic, and its development offers rich territory to explore—which is at the heart of Department of History and Philosophy of Science.

General Philosophy of Science

James Woodward, a Distinguished Professor of History and Philosophy of Science and an associate director of the Center for Philosophy of Science, is a generalist in philosophy of science. He is the department’s most recent senior appointment and current president of the Philosophy of Science Association. He works on causal reasoning, explanation, and theory testing, as well as neurobiology and economics. Much of his recent work has focused on causation. His 2003 book, Making Things Happen, winner of the 2005 Lakatos prize for the best book in philosophy of science, describes a general framework for understanding causes in terms of idealized experimental manipulations or “interventions.” Woodward has been working on extending this framework and in applying it to understand causal reasoning in sciences like biology, psychology, and economics. A closely related interest concerns the empirical psychology of causal learning and causal judgment: “How do human beings (both infants and adults) learn about causal relationships?”

Professor of History and Philosophy of Science Peter K. Machamer’s expertise on “the mechanical philosophy” of Descartes and Galileo helped inspire a new version of mechanism that is one of the most influential contemporary accounts of scientific explanation and discovery. In fact, his 2000 Philosophy of Science article “Thinking about Mechanisms” (written with Lindley Darden and Carl F. Craver) is the most-cited article for the past three years in the premier journal in the field. Machamer is an associate director of the Center for Philosophy of Science and an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Philosophy.

History and Philosophy of Biology

Biology takes center stage in much of the public’s interest in science, from its practical roles in medicine and agriculture to its conceptual role in our understanding what it means to be a human being. The department’s concentration in this growing area of history and philosophy of science includes faculty experts Professor of History and Philosophy of Science James G. Lennox, Kenneth F. Schaffner, and Mitchell. 

Schaffner is a Distinguished University Professor in the History and Philosophy of Science; a University Professor of Philosophy; and a professor of psychology (secondary). He is a member of the World Psychiatric Association-World Health Organization Workgroup on Classification and on International Diagnostic Systems. As such, he puts his widely recognized expertise in the philosophy of psychiatry to work to help structure the reference tool used as the international standard by health care providers, researchers, and policy makers. His seminal account of reduction in biology continues to influence contemporary discussions. His research on behavioral genetics combines philosophical analysis of core concepts with capturing historically significant developments in the field by interviewing key scientists. 

Mitchell’s research explores contemporary scientific studies of complexity in the life sciences; investigating how new developments in science reshape some of our basic philosophical views. Her 2009 book Unsimple Truths: Science, Complexity and Policy lays out her research results on topics including emergent structures, knock-out experiments, and genetically modified foods. She examines our vision of the world, how it is constituted, what kind of knowledge we can have, how to investigate it, and how to act in light of the results of those investigations that reflect nature’s complexity and contingency. Her current research is focused on the multiple scientific perspectives directed toward explaining protein folding. How do the physics of the atomic interactions, the chemistry of the bonds, and the biological function in the cell all contribute to our understanding of this essential ingredient of life? How does the use of “citizen scientists” in the form of Internet game players, for example, change the shape of scientific practice in this domain?

Ancient and Early Modern Science and Philosophy

Lennox and Machamer contribute to the history and philosophy of science component of this interdepartmental area of research, joined by faculty in philosophy and in classics. Lennox explores the ways in which different philosophical views about the nature of life and about science influence the way in which living things are investigated. He starts with Aristotle. The source of the other set of puzzles that directs his investigations is, appropriately, Charles Darwin. Lennox investigates the ways in which various philosophical influences on Darwin, and his own methodological innovations, shaped his modes of explaining living things. As a committed historian, Lennox naturally asked, what happened in between? In the last decade, he began to focus more intensely on the 16th and 17th centuries, especially on William Harvey, an English physician who studied the circulatory system. 

The early modern period stretches roughly from the 15th through the mid-18th centuries. This period includes the scientific revolution (think Copernicus, Galileo, Newton) and the birth of modern philosophy (think Descartes, Hobbes, Rousseau) and also significant transformations in mathematics, mechanics, optics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, and medicine. It also sees the rise of probabilistic reasoning, the emergence of new views of objectivity, metaphysics and epistemology, and deep changes in the wider culture of Western civilization. This is ripe territory for the integrated history and philosophy of science exploration led by Machamer, Lennox, and Professor Paolo Palmieri. 

It is a long way from being a control engineer in Italy’s Ferrari plant, charged with the mathematical modeling of the automobile’s dynamics, to poring over dusty archives in Florence. But that is one direction Palmieri’s research has taken. In order to read the manuscripts and fully interpret what the Renaissance scholars added, Palmieri has had to call on his knowledge of Latin, Greek, French, and German, as well as his native Italian. What fascinates Palmieri is the creative processes at the crossroads of art, science, and technology.

History and Philosophy of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Psychiatry

The sciences that study “us” provide a special fascination to historians and philosophers as well as to the curious bystander. The history and philosophy of science is rich in resources that reflect on the sciences that study human behavior. Machamer, Schaffner, and three recently added faculty—Woodward, Edouard Machery,  and Mazviita Chirimuuta—focus their research in this area.

Like many past and contemporary philosophers, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science Edouard Machery is fascinated by the mind and wants to understand the nature of mental states, the relation between the mind and the brain, the human capacity to make rational judgments and decisions, the function of consciousness, and the origins of morality, among other subjects of study. But, in contrast to many philosophers, Machery doubts that this understanding can be gained through pure philosophical reasoning. Rather, answers to the puzzling questions about the mind are likely to be found at the intersection of philosophy with cognitive science and cognitive neuroscience, and his work is deeply rooted in these scientific disciplines. For example, understanding morality involves its evolutionary origins and the empirical work of moral psychology. 

Machery, the director of Graduate Studies for Department of History and Philosophy of Science, is one of the leaders in a new method of doing philosophy. Machery claims that, in addition to employing traditional reasoning, arguments, and analysis, “philosophical work should itself sometimes be empirical.” Assumptions embedded in philosophical questions about “race” or “morality,” for example, depend on empirical facts about how humans think and act, and philosophers need to assess the truth of these assumptions empirically. 

Mazviita Chirimuuta is an assistant professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science with a PhD in visual neuroscience from the University of Cambridge. She is also an adjunct faculty member with the Center for the Neural Basis for Cognition, a joint venture of the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. Chirimuuta examines the relationship between neuroscience and the philosophy of mind and perception. Her main focus in recent years has been on color vision, developing a theory of color that acknowledges the complexities of visual function revealed by recent science. She is completing a book detailing this work, Outside Color, for MIT Press. Alongside experimental work on visual cognition, her latest research looks at the implications of neuroplasticity for our philosophical accounts of explanation in neuroscience. Engaged in debate with philosophers who find the plasticity of the brain an obstacle to learning how the brain works, Chirimuuta asks, “Does changing or extending the brain rule out explaining the brain?” Her answer is no.

History and Philosophy of Physics

From Aristotle to Newton to Einstein to today, physics has occupied a foundational place in science. History and philosophy of physics continues to be a core domain of research in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science. Its faculty expertise has always been accorded significant international acclaim. Several members of the faculty delve into the technical details to explore questions about space, time, and matter, including Professor John D. Norton (who also directs the Center for Philosophy of Science and is an adjunct professor in the Department of Philosophy) and Distinguished University Professor Emeritus John Earman, as well as faculty from the Department of Philosophy (Giovanni Valente, Robert Batterman, and Mark Wilson) .

John D. Norton is widely known as an Einstein scholar. He still remembers the moment that launched his career. In the early 1980s, he was visiting for a year at the Eiinstein Papers project in Princeton. He was thumbing through a copy of an Einstein notebook that was labeled as teaching notes. It fell open at a page and across the bottom was a formula in Einstein’s neat hand. “I knew instantly that I’d found something important,” he says. “These were not teaching notes. It was exciting, and I was telling myself to take breath and not get too excited. I did not know then that this was a key that would unlock a new generation of Einstein scholarship.”

What Norton had found connected with Einstein’s greatest discovery, his general theory of relativity. That is the theory that relates gravity to a curvature of space-time and leads to the Big Bang theory and black holes. The general theory of relativity did not spring fully formed from Einstein’s brow. He had first missed, publishing a misshapen version of the theory in 1913. Just how Einstein had gone wrong was one of the outstanding puzzles of the history of science.

Norton’s work with Einstein shows how the history of science and philosophy of science can be synthesized. While Einstein was struggling with his misshapen theory, he hit upon an ingenious argument, “the hole argument.” Working with his Pitt colleague John Earman, Norton found that Einstein’s argument could be recreated in modern debates in the philosophy of space and time. It has now become a modern staple in that literature, providing a strong argument again the thesis that space and space-time are substances.

The Center for Philosophy of Science

The Department of Philosophy and the Department of History and Philosophy of Science are teaching departments. A third unit completes the unique philosophical strength of the University of Pittsburgh in philosophy—the Center for Philosophy of Science. 

The center is the leading research institute of its type in the world. It hosts visiting fellows, postdoctoral fellows, and senior fellows, eight of whom are in residence at any one time. In the three decades since the visiting programs were initiated, the center has hosted nearly 300 visiting professors from more than 30 countries.

The center supports a busy program of formal events. Its signature series, the Annual Lecture Series, brings in leading philosophers of science and scientists of interest to philosophers. It has been in unbroken operation since 1960. There are many lunchtime talks given by fellows, by local faculty from the various University departments, or by philosophers of science who happen to be passing through Pittsburgh. The center organizes four or five workshops and conferences annually.

“Subjects of the conferences and workshops range over the full span of sciences,” says center director John Norton. “One workshop might plumb the depths of quantum field theory. Another conference looks at the peculiar status of experiment in science. A third conference might look at modeling.”
Perhaps the most important thing about the center is intangible: It is designed to be a site of intellectual ferment. The best scholars in the field go there when they are ready to free themselves from obligations, to recharge their intellectual batteries by engaging with their colleagues, or to sit down to write their next work. 

“It is a busy place, with chance encounters in the hallways leading to collaborations that may extend across the years,” says Norton. “Everyone is just preparing for a talk about to be given, pondering one just heard, preparing to discuss their own work in a small reading group, or eagerly capturing the latest inspiration.”

In conjunction with the University Library System, the Center for Philosophy of Science created and operates, a preprint server for professional work in philosophy of science. It is the leading repository of its type in the world.With its unique position in scholarship in philosophy of science, the center is internationally recognized and commonly cited as the center other fledgling organizations seek to emulate.