A Conversation with Distinguished Professor Robert Brandom
This year will mark Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Robert Brandom's (pictured above seated) 40th year at the University of Pittsburgh. He has published 12 books, the most influential of which are Making It Explicit and Between Saying and Doing: Towards an Analytic Pragmatism, and he has had 20 books written about him and his work. His work focuses on the philosophy of language, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of logic; on German idealism and neopragmatism; and on American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars. In 2000, Brandom was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, and in 2004, he received the Distinguished Achievement in the Humanities Award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Brandom has given the John Locke Lectures at the University of Oxford, the most prestigious invited philosophy lectureship. Most recently, he was awarded the 2015 Anneliese Maier Research Award, presented by Germany’s Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. The award recognizes “researchers from abroad from the fields of the humanities and social sciences whose scientific achievements have been internationally recognized in their research area.”
What motivates you to teach?
“I find ideas exciting, and I am eager to pass on my knowledge and excitement. The Department of Philosophy is distinctive in that, due to its international reputation, a number of students who are studying elsewhere and come to an interest in philosophy transfer to Pitt to complete their degree. This self-selected group of majors is composed of some of the smartest and most talented undergraduates, who are particularly impressive and rewarding to teach.”
Please talk about your teaching style.
“My students are reading original texts, difficult texts, most often from the 19th century, focusing on the philosophy of mind. I ask my students to read before class and come prepared with questions. In class, I tell stories about how these questions fit with larger questions of thought, how they compare and contrast. I give students context for what questions are being addressed and why and what we can learn from the answers. It is very important that students be independently engaged with the questions themselves.
“Each class is an adventure in ideas. In each class, we see examples of ideas that were so original and important [that] they transformed the thinking and the individuals who mastered these ideas. We must follow what happened and how the world looked different after people had these ideas.”
What surprises you about your students?
“There is a general perception that students now are more career oriented in their short-term focus. This has not been my perception at all. Students are interested in getting an education, and they appreciate that the proper model for a student-teacher relationship is not a customer-business relationship but a client-professional relationship. Clients know that they do not 100 percent know what they want. They come with a general goal. Students come with a general goal of becoming educated beings, and they do not know exactly what they need to know and do. I continue to be surprised [by] and impressed with the extent to which students understand that.”
What advice would you give to undergraduate students who show an interest in philosophy?
“Realize that, unlike other investments, the value of an education is proportionate to what is put into it.
You can’t get it; you have to give it to yourself. Most people are interested in the subject not [because they want] to become philosophers but because of the way you develop your own mind by understanding the best thinking of the best philosophers throughout the ages. It gives one perspective on one’s own time. If we do not understand how we got here, we can’t understand how to move on. With a historical perspective, we see an evolving and developing tradition. Students of philosophy can carry that conversation forward.”
What advice would you give to parents whose undergraduate student may be interested in tackling this major?
“Don’t panic! There are many things to do with a philosophy degree outside academia. A degree in philosophy is esteemed by law schools as well as [by] the captains of business and industry. They appreciate the flexibility of the mind that an education in philosophy develops.”