Meet the Department Chair

July 13, 2015

Chair of the Department of Philosophy Tad Zawidzki has just assumed his first administrative position, and is looking forward to learning new skills and meeting new challenges. We caught up with him recently and learned all about the relevance of philosophy to our everyday lives and careers.

What advice do you have for students interested in philosophy?

Don’t let relatives, strangers, or your peers talk you out of taking philosophy courses or even majoring in philosophy! Despite its reputation for being way too abstract and impractical, I don’t think there is a better major to prepare one for articulating and addressing the daily challenges of life. Philosophy helps people to become better thinkers, writers, and more engaging interlocutors, and these are skills that benefit everyone no matter what career they ultimately pursue.

What does a degree in philosophy encompass? How does it prepare students for further study and/or careers?

Philosophy is truly at the heart of a liberal arts education. Above all, it provides the analytical tools necessary to develop careful, critical, incisive, and original perspectives on oneself, one’s society, and the world in which we live. One of the wonderful things about a degree in philosophy is that it enables students to deepen their understanding of the centrality of philosophical issues in all other disciplines. Philosophy majors at GW take a variety of classes in a number of different areas. The research they undertake is directly connected with issues they discuss in other courses such as history, sociology, anthropology, religion, mathematics, biology, art history. . .and this is not an exhaustive list!

Law schools and medical schools tend to love philosophy majors because they are trained to be rigorous, systematic thinkers and because they know how to synthesize important information from a case and express the main points as well as the more subtle points clearly, both orally and in writing. Our majors tend to feel quite special not only because we give them a lot of personal attention but also because they have taken the “road less travelled.” They have resisted the temptation to be complacent and simply accept what they are taught. Instead, they are trained to pursue the difficult “why, what, and how” questions that underlie every claim to knowledge and truth.

You have published two books and many articles on the philosophy and sciences of the mind. What fascinates you about these subjects and how they relate to the contemporary world?

I locate my research in a long and rich philosophical tradition stretching back to the Scientific Revolution of the Seventeenth Century. Since then, arguably the central project of European and American philosophy has consisted in attempting to reconcile our commonsense understanding of the world with the extremely powerful yet counter-intuitive worldview being produced by modern science. American and European common sense has it that we are free, conscious agents, who make mostly rational decisions based on conscious contemplation of the beliefs and desires animating our minds. But from its inception, modern science has generated extremely successful models of the world that appear in tension with such assumptions. Physics tells us that the behavior of all physical objects, including our bodies, is completely determined by the laws governing the interactions among the parts of which they are composed. Biology tells us that we are a species of mammal, descended from a common ancestor we share with all other life forms on the planet, and subject to the same physiological, anatomical, and genetic principles as they are. Neuroscience tells us that most of our behavior is predictable based on brain states. Psychology and other social sciences continually identify serious limits to our rationality and self-knowledge. Can our traditional self-understanding as free, rational, and self-conscious agents survive the revolutions in knowledge that science has wrought and continues to wreak? This is more than a mere idle theoretical question. Systems of value and law, widespread in the world, seem to presuppose the commonsense picture of human beings and their place in the world, and hence are equally threatened by the progress of science. For example, why should we be held responsible for our actions if they are mere products of physical and biological laws over which we have no control? One of my philosophical heroes, the American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars, captured the tension between science and common sense in particularly evocative language: he saw philosophy as an attempt to reconcile the “Scientific Image” with the “Manifest Image”, or, as he put it, an attempt to explain how “things in the broadest possible sense of the term, hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term”. I see my research as contributing to this project.

Describe your current research and its significance within your discipline.

I have recently published a book entitled Mindshaping (2013, MIT Press). The book is an attempt to get clearer on just how our commonsense self-understanding works, what it consists in, how it evolved, and what jobs it does for us. I argue that commonsense self-conceptions have the function of shaping us to become better coordination partners with other human beings. Skill at such coordination is the secret of our evolutionary success – why we dominate the planet, while our closest primate cousins are threatened with extinction. By turning ourselves into good coordinators, our commonsense self-conceptions can serve an important function, even if they aren’t fully accurate pictures of how our brains work, and hence may conflict with what science reveals about human nature. This is my suggestion about how the Manifest and Scientific Images can be reconciled: the Manifest Image is a set of regulative ideals that make us better social coordinators, while the Scientific Image is a set of models enabling successful, fine-grained prediction of behavior and control over its causes. They are not in tension because they serve different functions. I am in the process of publishing a number of papers and book chapters related to the themes explored in my book. My research is also turning in a new direction: exploring the Buddhist philosophical tradition as a potential source of new insights into the nature of the human mind. I think that many of the “mindshaping” practices in which we routinely, unconsciously, and automatically engage, which aim at turning us into successful coordination partners relative to our cultures, often have highly negative effects on mental health. The Buddhist understanding of our self-conceptions as ultimately “empty”, reflecting only a conventional reality, together with Buddhist practices of mediation and mindfulness, I think, are good antidotes to unhealthy identification with self-conceptions that play merely mindshaping roles. This, in any case, is the hypothesis I want to investigate over the coming years.

What is the one thing about you or your work that would most surprise people?

That is a hard question. I’m not particularly good at gauging what others expect about me! I suppose many might be surprised that I meditate every morning for at least 45 minutes, and that, in addition, I also engage in a yoga practice in which I hold poses for 30-40 minutes - usually one pose per day.