Philosophy takes steps to rebuild

March 2, 2006

The addition of five new professors to Yale’s Philosophy Department next fall is the latest step in a decade-long rebuilding process for the program, a project that has had mixed results.

Recent appointments have more than doubled the size of the senior faculty in the past decade, though the rebuilding process has been impeded by a number of departures and retirements. Professors said the latest hires are likely to boost the Philosophy Department’s national stature, which declined after disagreements between faculty members in the 1980s and the early 1990s led to a series of resignations. But some experts said that although the department is making significant progress, it has a long way to go to catch up to the field’s elite.

Philosophy chair Michael Della Rocca said the new hires — one junior and four senior professors — will fill out key gaps in the department’s offerings.

“With these appointments, now I feel the department’s really catapulted into the top tier of departments,” philosophy chair Michael Della Rocca said.

Philosophy professor Shelly Kagan said he expects the department’s place in the national Philosophical Gourmet rankings to go up based on the new hires. In the last ranking, done in 2004, Yale ranked 25th.

Given the department’s standing, Stanford University Philosophy Department chair Ken Taylor said he thinks Yale still has “a ways to go” before achieving national preeminence. The addition of scholars such as Tamar Gendler ’87 and Zoltan Szabo to the department marks a “tremendous coup,” Taylor said, but the department still has work to do if it wants to match top departments such as those at New York University, Princeton University and the University of Pittsburgh.

“I don’t see why, given the resources that Yale has available to it, [the department] shouldn’t be a top five, top six, top seven department,” Taylor said.

Professors said the new professors will make strong contributions in particular fields. The addition of Verity Harte, a specialist in ancient philosophy, will confirm the department’s preeminence in the history of philosophy, they said. But professor Karsten Harries said some gaps remain in the historical curriculum, including the subject areas of medieval and Kantian philosophy, but he said he thinks the department is now the best in the country in the history of philosophy.

“Throughout all the troubled periods in the department, one thing that remained constant was an interest in history of philosophy,” Della Rocca said.

The department’s “troubled period” stemmed from clashing personalities and scholarly differences, which made it difficult to retain faculty members, Della Rocca said. In the early 1990s, the department was assigned a chair from outside the discipline to defuse tension and to begin rebuilding the department. Harries and Della Rocca, who was a junior professor at the time, are the only remaining faculty members from that period.

Although professor emeritus Robert Adams was brought in to rebuild the department in 1993, the department never reached full strength during his tenure as chair due to a series of departures. But if recent hire Kenneth Winkler — who has received an tenure offer but will not decide whether to accept it until after a year as a visiting professor — takes a full position, all of the existing faculty slots will be filled, Della Rocca said.

Szabo, a specialist in philosophy of language who will come to Yale from Cornell University, said the department’s stormy history was a concern when he and Gendler, his wife, decided to accept Yale’s offers. But Szabo said he thinks the department is on the rise.

“I’m not sure it’s completely over, but I think there is a good strategy in place,” Szabo said.

Yale philosophy professors agreed that the department should continue expanding — the Philosophy Department was significantly larger in the 1960s and 1970s, when Yale boasted some of the world’s leading philosophers, Harries said. But student interest has declined along with the size of the faculty. In the late 1970s, Yale routinely graduated about 50 philosophy majors per year. This year, there are 25 senior philosophy majors.

If the department obtains resources to do more hiring, there is consensus among several current faculty members on which areas should be expanded. Harries, Della Rocca, and Kagan all said the department should add more faculty who specialize in 19th century philosophy. Kagan and Della Rocca also said moral philosophy, including ethics, is a subject of considerable student interest that could benefit from gaining additional professors.

“Like every department, we’ve got our eye on the next stage,” Kagan said. “It may be time to start asking ourselves, and asking the University, what can we have next?”

Gendler, a specialist in philosophy of the mind who will join the department in the fall along with her husband, said she thinks field of expertise should not necessarily be the driving factor for future appointments. The department has built up strength in all of the key areas, she said, so Yale should focus on “targets of opportunity,” top professors who would contribute enthusiastically to the department.

Della Rocca said the five recent hires will make it easier to attract more top-notch professors. 

“It’s always easier to make appointments when you’re in a position of strength,” Della Rocca said.

Taylor said he thinks Yale’s philosophy department should focus on internal promotions to grow its own talent, but that what he described as the “crazy, crazy” tenure process at Yale makes that difficult.

Ian Clowes ’07, a double major in philosophy and mechanical engineering, said he thinks a larger philosophy faculty will make it possible to attract more undergraduates, since this year there were not many classes that interested him, and he felt unprepared for others. When he shopped a seminar on Hegel, he said, few students shopping the class had prior experience with the philosopher’s work but the vast majority said they would be interested in an intermediate course to prepare them for the seminar.

“There weren’t all that many [classes], and there was a lot of esoteric stuff,” he said. “I think increased classes would increase interest in the Philosophy Department.”

Philosophy major Dylan Gadek ’07 said he thinks the department seems to be recovering from the problems of the early 1990s.

“It’s gone through a transition period and is definitely on the way up,” he said.

Professor Jill North ’97 was also recently hired as a junior faculty member.

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