Bob Pasnau, CU Boulder professor of philosophy, outlines some of his goals upon becoming the APA’s Central Division president while also making a case for the value of studying philosophy in college
Bob Pasnau’s life is likely to get busier in 2024.
That’s when the University of Colorado Boulder professor of philosophy and founding editor of Oxford Studies in Medieval Philosophy will take on the duties of president of the Central Division of the American Philosophical Association (the association, which was founded in 1900 and is headquartered in Delaware, has three geographical divisions: Eastern, Central and Pacific).
“The American Philosophical Association’s missions are to promote the study of philosophy at the university level, to improve the popular understanding of what philosophy is, and why it’s important to support its members and their research,” Pasnau says.
“In North America, for those who are professional philosophers, the APA is really the indispensable organization for our community in terms of organizing conferences, helping young scholars get jobs and basically making the whole profession run,” he adds. “I should mention APA conferences are fairly large affairs; thousands of people will gather in one place to talk about philosophy of all kinds.”
While the APA has an executive staff that runs the association’s day-to-day activities, Pasnau says the volunteer division presiding officers—which includes presidents, vice presidents and past presidents serving one-year terms—shape the mission for their respective divisions.
Recently, Pasnau spoke with this magazine about some of his goals for the APA Central Division after assuming the duties of president next July (he now serves as the vice president). He also spoke about the value of studying philosophy in college and addressed what he says are common misconceptions about the study of philosophy. His lightly edited responses appear below.
Question: Do you have any goals upon becoming the Central Division APA president?
Pasnau: As a member of the board, I’ll be playing a role in shaping the mission of the APA. One particular interest that I have—and that I want to bring to the board—is promoting the study of non-Western philosophy, which I think is tremendously important. That field has not been pursued as effectively as it ought to have been.
I’m also very interested in seeing efforts around the country to unionize bear fruit among graduate students, among staff and among faculty. There are a lot of universities where unionization efforts have been successful. Other ones are still in the works, and I would like to see the APA do what it can to support those efforts.
Regarding (diversity, inclusion and equity) efforts, the APA has put a lot of energy into those efforts, as have a lot of academic institutions. It’s something the APA has thought a lot about, and certainly I want to help the APA continue to pursue those initiatives.
Philosophy is a field where women and racial minorities continue to be underrepresented, and so that’s an area that’s important the APA continue to address.
Part of my interest in developing the study of non-Western philosophy is, I think, that’s an aspect of diversity that’s quite important and that bringing these topics into the classroom is an important way to achieve diversity in the sorts of people that study philosophy and who go on to teach it.
Question: From your perspective, are there misperceptions regarding the study of philosophy?
Pasnau: I think one thing that people often don’t realize is how broad philosophy is and how many different things philosophers are interested in. Philosophy is really a massively interdisciplinary subject. I have colleagues who have keen interest in neuroscience, in physics, in gender studies and on and on.
I myself am extremely interested in literature and thinking about literature from a philosophical point of view. It’s hard to think of any topic in academia that philosophers aren’t actively engaged in trying to understand. So, that’s one thing that I think someone might not expect from philosophy, that it’s so wide-ranging in its interests and in the fields with which it interacts.
Question: In your field, you have focused on medieval philosophy. What is it about that time period that is of interest to you? Also, is it fair to say that’s something of an overlooked period in the study of philosophy?
I’m drawn to areas in the history of philosophy that I feel have been understudied. I’ve always felt as if the most valuable contribution I could make to the field is trying to broaden the horizons of what we understand about the history of philosophy in general, and the Middle Ages is really a badly understudied, underappreciated part of that history.
Pasnau: I’m drawn to areas in the history of philosophy that I feel have been understudied. I’ve always felt as if the most valuable contribution I could make to the field is trying to broaden the horizons of what we understand about the history of philosophy in general, and the Middle Ages is really a badly understudied, underappreciated part of that history.
There’s absolutely brilliant philosophy that was done during that period, and most of it remains almost entirely under-studied. To me, it’s this wonderful playground of ideas where I can look at things that literally no one in hundreds of years has read or has thought about. I get to reconstruct the history of ideas in this period, just as a kind of explorer out there trying to discover things that, before now, have been completely unknown.
As to why that time period is not well-studied or well-understood, that’s a good question. I think a large part of the answer is that, toward the end of the Middle Ages, a movement arose to try to go back to ancient thought (i.e., Plato, Socrates etc.). And as part of that movement, it was thought that there was something sort of unoriginal about the Middle Ages—that they were just repeating the ideas of antiquity, and that we should go back and try to access those original ideas.
At the same time, a lot of distinctively medieval ideas were rejected in favor of the new science that was developing in the 17th century, and so the earlier medieval material just came to be kind of passed over, and people thought, “Well, ancient things are interesting, and these new modern things (ideas from the 17th century) are interesting, so it’s a very old tradition of thinking that that the Middle Ages can be just skipped over.”
Question: Some might say colleges should focus on teaching practical skills, like the sciences or business. What’s your take?
Pasnau: The kind of education that I think makes sense for most students to obtain at a university is a very general education and also one that promotes how to think and reason critically. Philosophy is just about the best place at a university to do that sort of thing, and my thoughts are borne out by the numbers.
If you look at how people do professionally, in the years after they graduate from college, philosophy majors do extraordinarily well. I think that’s not surprising, because the skills that really are required to thrive professionally these days, they’re general skills about thinking and reasoning and being able to critically assess arguments.
We (philosophy) are one of the most popular majors in humanities, and our majors go on to do all sorts of things. They go into the business world, they go into computing, they go to law school, they go into medicine—all kinds of things. And again, statistically speaking, they do quite well for themselves.
Question: What, in your opinion, is the best thing about being a philosophy teacher at CU?
Pasnau: That’s easy—it’s the students. I feel very fortunate, really, to teach here and to have had such great students in my classroom. I think in part that’s because of the nature of studying philosophy. The kinds of students who sign up for philosophy classes are really interesting, intelligent people, and it’s been my pleasure to teach them.
Top of the page: The American Philosophical Association (APA) was founded in 1900 and is the main professional association serving philosophers at the college level. In July, CU Boulder professor of philosophy Pasnau will become the president of the APA’s Central Division.
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