Chicago - Oct. 15, 2020
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Philosophizing At UIC

One of my favorite ways to spend an afternoon is hashing out philosophical dilemmas. What makes a philosopher a good philosopher? Are there any quirks unique to the Windy City philosopher? Why bother with all the abstract questions philosophy offers? And lastly (though certain not least), what's the meaning of life? If anyone had any authority claims to make on answering these questions, I figured it would be David Hilbert, philosophy professor and department chair at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Hilbert hadn't always planned on being a philosopher.

"I got interested in philosophy in high school. I was kind of a nerdy, bio-oriented kid, and my parents got me a subscription to Scientific American, and in the back of the magazine was this column called 'Mathematical Games,' which was written by a man who actually had a Ph.D in philosophy.

"So it was mostly math, but every now and again he'd do some philosophy, and he would recommend books to read. I read some of the stuff he recommended and some of it was so hard, I couldn't understand. But the stuff that I understood was like - I was interested in science, but I was really more interested in thinking about science than doing it.

"So then I went off to college and I was going to be a doctor, so I was a pre-med. I was going to major in physics or chemistry or philosophy. And it turned out that the philosophy classes I took I just got more excited about, and also I did better, which also just makes it more fun.

"And by then I did all the pre-med stuff, and at the very end I went off and worked at a nursing home for the summer between the sophomore and junior year. I was like, 'I don't want to do what those guys are doing. I want to think about these big questions.' And so I went back and broke the news to my parents and went to my professors and said, 'Thanks so much for writing that med school letter, could you write me a different one now for philosophy graduate school?' And that's how it went!"

I was amazed by his story, but Hilbert told me that among philosophers who studied science-based questions, that sort of story was fairly common.

"You get interested in science first," he said, "and then you come to realize it's the big picture questions that drive you."

With philosophy's notorious reputation for its challenging, abstract questions, I was curious to know why Hilbert felt the field is still important to keep relevant.

"Many areas of human life - not just science, but even just going to the grocery store - raise these questions: What are we doing? Why are we doing it? Is it a good thing to do or is it a bad thing to do?

"And I think it's really helpful to - and people do this all the time, you don't need to be a philosopher to do this - to take a step back and think about the bigger picture of the world as you understand it, and your life as you're trying to live it.

"I think part of what philosophy does is give us the tools and ideas we can use to inform our own attempts at understanding the world and our lives from stepping back and the big-picture view . . . understanding is a good thing, and philosophers contribute to a kind of understanding that is connected to things that go on in almost everybody's life, but we pursue it a bit more relentlessly . . . the other thing, if you study philosophy, it places a premium on analytic skills and logical clarity, and I think those are useful tools no matter what you do in life."

I decided to switch gears to the hometown, so I asked next about what made UIC's philosophy department unique compared to other schools.

"The faculty are from all over the world," Hilbert said. There are only two people in the department who are from the area: Marya Schechtman (featured in my last column) from the city and himself from Northern Illinois.

"The job market is essentially the whole English-speaking world, and some parts of Europe," he said. "So it's hard to get a lot of local culture because philosophers go where the jobs are. The grad students are more likely to have a local connection."

He mentioned his having taught on both the East and the West Coasts, and how UIC students are "more curious, less sure they know every [answer] ahead of time."

He talked about how, in an effort to establish common ground with the locals, he tries to connect the course material to "corn fields, farms, and Lake Michigan."

It doesn't get more quintessentially Northern Illinois than that.

Hilbert also said that the student body at UIC offers more variety with their backgrounds, which "holds less true for the other places I taught."

Despite covering a wide range of topics, the UIC philosophy faculty is "unusually unified," he said. Despite the department's intellectual diversity, there is strong interaction between faculty members.

"I'm not sure undergraduates understand how weird a place UIC is. It's a research university . . . but it's teaching an incredibly diverse student body - diverse not [just] in terms [of] race and ethnicity but also economically.

"I taught at Princeton, Stanford, University of Chicago, Yale and CalTech. It's not that there are no poor kids at those schools . . . it's not that there's no diversity, but it's nothing like UIC.

"The combination of diversity at a research university is really unusual, and it makes the teaching way more interesting, and in some ways challenging, but also a lot more fun. That changes the way we think . . . that has an effect on not just how we teach but also how we think about philosophy."

Over a 30-odd year career, with areas focusing on visions, especially color vision, and 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke, Hilbert has noticed the field is opening up and engaging with issues that aren't solely entrenched in abstract ideas.

"I think that's a good thing and it's good for students, [which helps] to reach out and show people the value of philosophy."

If there's anything people want an answer to, it's "What's the meaning of life?" My interest, however, was in why people were so desperate to find meaning.

"To see there being some point as to what you're doing. That purpose doesn't have to come from outside us. Whenever we act, there's something we're trying to accomplish. I think we can set our goals ourselves."

Working towards those goals is what gives our lives meaning.

"The meaning I give my life are things I want to accomplish, but I don't always accomplish them," he said.

Regarding religion, despite not being religious himself, Hilbert said he is able to understand "a little bit."

"I do want to do the right thing. I want to be a good person. It's hard to think about how to be good . . . and you worry maybe I'm just fooling myself into thinking this is the right way to behave. So the idea that you can look to some authoritative guide, I can see how that could be appealing."

I couldn't conclude the interview before asking for advice. I inquired if it were possible to give a piece of advice that fit any person from any background.

"Step back, question your assumptions, approach without assuming everything you believe is right . . . go in[to] everything with a skeptical attitude . . . You can't live your whole life like that, but I think if people did more of that they would have better lives. It's so easy to go along, and say, 'I agree with that, I agree with that, I agree with that,' but sometimes you need to step back and ask, "Does this really make sense?' And that's at the heart of what philosophers do . . . One of my deeply held philosophical views is that everything is complicated."

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E.K. Mam is a second-year philosophy student at UIC and our budding philosophy correspondent. Her last post was Nihilism & Personal Identity. She welcomes your comments.



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Posted on October 12, 2020


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