Pitt Philosopher John McDowell Honored With Mellon Foundation Distinguished Achievement Award

Issue Date: 
April 11, 2011
John McDowellJohn McDowell

University of Pittsburgh philosophy professor John McDowell’s work urging his colleagues to be more in touch with their human side when pondering the natural world has earned him a 2010 Distinguished Achievement Award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The honor, one of the most prestigious awards in the humanities, includes a $1.5 million grant.

McDowell, Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy in Pitt’s School of Arts and Sciences, was one of only three Mellon achievement award recipients nationwide this year, along with scholars from Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania. Established in 2001, the Mellon achievement award recognizes humanities professors who have had a lasting influence on their students and colleagues and supports ongoing work that promises to make a significant contribution to the recipient’s field and to overall humanistic inquiry.

“As a recipient of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Distinguished Achievement Award, John McDowell joins an elite group of scholars whose academic endeavors have exemplified and advanced the vital role that the humanities play within our educational institutions and society at large,” said Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg. “His significant contributions to philosophy have enhanced both his discipline and the legacy of groundbreaking philosophical inquiry and discovery for which our University’s Department of Philosophy is internationally known. We extend to him our heartiest congratulations.”

With this award, McDowell will build upon his decades-long work to explain how philosophers can think about the natural world without restricting themselves to the observations of the natural sciences, as he thinks his contemporaries have been inclined to do in recent years.

McDowell first delved into this idea in his acclaimed book Mind and World (Harvard University Press, 1994). He described in this book an impasse in philosophical thought about how to combine the idea that perception is the result of human reason at work with the idea that humans have natural capacities for perceptual experience. McDowell reconciled the two ideas by concluding that human experience can be seen as a result of “second nature,” those unique human attributes acquired in upbringing, such as the ability to rationalize that allows us to think scientifically.

“The big-picture issue was how to think about nature,” McDowell said. “There’s a tendency to think the natural world can be considered solely through the natural sciences, but that makes it impossible to think straight about how humans gain knowledge of the environment through our natural interaction with it. Science is great, but it’s not the only answer.”

McDowell said he plans to follow up on several ideas he raised, but did not fully explore, in Mind and World and that he has contemplated ever since, he explained. He wants to further explore experience—how we take in the world—and extend his reflection about nature in considering our capacity to act, or intervene, in the world. In addition, McDowell will devote time to studying the work of German philosophers Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel, particularly how their ideas of freedom, or self-determination, apply to perception and action.

“I touched upon these ideas in the book and don’t want to leave what I said there as throwaway remarks for the rest of my life,” McDowell said. “The way I work is that I keep thinking, and as I looked back on things that I wrote in 1994 I realized that certain ideas needed to be revisited.”

McDowell will use the freedom afforded him by the Mellon award to focus on graduate teaching, publishing his research, and presenting it at conferences. In addition, he will use part of his grant to help fund philosophy conferences and the scholarly efforts of his colleagues.

In addition to receiving the Mellon achievement award, McDowell has been a Fellow of the British Academy since l983 and an American Academy of Arts and Sciences Fellow since 1992. In 1991, he gave the University of Oxford John Locke Lecture, one of the world’s most prestigious lecture series and the presentation that formed the basis for Mind and World.

McDowell is the second Pitt professor to receive the Mellon achievement award, joining 2003 recipient and Pitt Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Robert Brandom.