Expedition in Pittsburgh

I’m penning this note from a middle seat in the Expedition van rolling on an Ohio interstate.  I’ve been with the crew for 24 hours by this point: much laughter, reflective conversation, and warm Western PA alumni hospitality in our rearview mirror.

Jen, Emily, and Jason have been jolly companions, and the road trip miles have been filled with an avalanche of questions about what it’s like on the inside, as a faculty member at Williams: “Do faculty get anxious about tenure?” “Do faculty get as annoyed by That Guy Who Talks All the Time in class as much as students do?” “Why does the entire math faculty have strange voices?”  Stuff like that.* Imagine a collision between Jack Kerouac’s book, a purple-cow themed Simpson’s episode, and fieldwork on turnpike rest stop cuisine.  It’s been fun.

Meeting with the Pittsburgh regional association Wednesday evening was terrific.  Thanks to Bob Nutting ’84, we were hosted in the spectacular skybox at PNC park, the home of the Pirates.

In my lecture, I wanted to share a little bit of my work and travels, and give people a reminder of the Williams classroom experience. My topic was the philosophical foundations of contemporary science on the mind. The essentially Cartesian way that many scientists view the mind — as taking inputs from the environment, performing some internal computation (we usually call this “thinking”) and generating an output in the form of behavior —  has an alternative.  Why think the isolated, solitary, interior self is the right unit of analysis for science? Another approach emphasizes our physical nature — our bodily shape, our evolutionary and cultural calibration to the environment, our social coordination —  as a crucial, ineliminable part of the capacity for thought. This embodied philosophy has much to recommend it on purely empirical grounds and  I think, too, that there are important cross-cultural themes elements to be found in it, especially with respect to the scholarly traditions of Buddhist philosophy of mind.

My thinking on these issues owes much to wonderful collaborations with students and colleagues, including Rachel Schneebaum ’09 (who wrote a spectacular philosophy senior thesis),  Safa Zaki and Kris Kirby in psychology, Heather Williams in neuroscience, Andrea Danyluk in computer science, and Georges Dreyfus in religion.

Afterward, we had a wide-ranging discussion, where my former student Brian Hirshman ’06 somehow managed to ask a not completely non-sequitur question about cluster housing. Ryan Loughran ’13  jumped confidently into the conversation, and I look forward to chatting more with him when he arrives in Williamstown. And I hope Pam Israel ’93 was fondly reminded of the introduction to philosophy class we took back in the day.

On a more personal note, I was touched to be able to reconnect with my old friend and classmate Brienne Sembrat (née Colby) ’91.  Seeing her and hearing a bit of her news was a reminder of the enduring joy of the friendships we form at Williams.  This sense of community is at the heart of our Expedition**.


* 1) Yes. 2) I usually engineer an intervention before it gets to that point. 3) Imagine what they hear in their heads!

** I have been advised that this post might be too boring.  The way I figure it, though, I only have to be funnier than the next faculty guest.  Since that’s (my colleague and former JA) Will Dudley ’89, I like my chances.