Uncommon Ground

Honoring Ruth Millikan

Ruth Millikan is Emeritus Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at UConn. Quoting from her web page, Ruth’s “research interests span many topics in the philosophy of biology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and ontology.” She is a highly respected and influential philosopher. From her Wikipedia page:

She was awarded the Jean Nicod Prize and gave the Jean Nicod Lectures in Paris in 2002.[3] She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2014 [4] and received, in 2017, both the Nicholas Rescher Prize for Systematic Philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh[5] and the Rolf Schock Prize in Logic and Philosophy.[6]

On April 30th I had the great honor of presenting a few remarks at an event held to celebrate Ruth’s contributions and to inaugurate the Ruth Garrett Millikan Endowment to support graduate students. Daniel Dennett was the featured speaker, and he highlighted Ruth’s contributions, focusing especially on one of her early books – Language, Thought, and Other Biological Categories – and her most recent one – Beyond Concepts. If you want to understand why her work is so important, you’ll need to read those books yourself. Her Wikipedia page provides only a very brief summary.

My comments focused on why graduate education, particularly PhD education, and financial support for graduate education is vital. On the off chance you’re interested in reading what I had to say, the full text of my remarks follows.

Thank you, Mitch, for the kind introduction.

I am delighted to be part of this celebration launching the Ruth Garrett Millikan Endowment to support graduate student research, and I’m sure that everyone can guess one of the reasons that I’m delighted to be here. I am, after all, Dean of The Graduate School, and I am delighted any time that graduate students receive additional support for their research.

I’ll say more about that in a moment, but I first want to mention another reason that I’m delighted to be here. As some of you know, I’ve dabbled in philosophy for a long time. I had a minor in Philosophy as an undergraduate, I’ve published a couple of papers in Philosophy of Science, I co-taught The Structure of Scientific Thought with Anne Hiskes for more than 10 years, and I’ve served as an associate advisor on one or two PhD dissertations in Philosophy here at UConn. So I regard it as a special privilege and honor to be part of a celebration that not only launches an endowment to support graduate student research, but that in doing so honors Ruth Millikan’s enormous contributions to philosophy.

Since I only dabble in philosophy and I’m in the midst of a crowd who does it professionally, I won’t even attempt to say anything about Ruth’s contributions. I’ll leave that to someone who knows what he’s talking about. Instead, let me say a few words on a topic I do know something about, the vital importance of graduate education and of financial support for graduate student research.

And, since I am in the company of philosophers, let me start by making a distinction. There are two distinct categories of graduate education:

  • First, graduate education that focuses on demonstrating mastery of what is already known. For example, professional doctorates in audiology or physical therapy, or coursework-based master’s programs in business, finance, or engineering.
  • Second, graduate education that requires the generation of new knowledge. Research-based master’s and doctoral degrees, of which a PhD is the exemplar. As I will say next Monday when I confer doctoral degrees to this year’s graduates, a PhD is evidence that its holder has joined the community of scholars, a community that takes nothing for granted, that advances the frontiers of knowledge, and that offers fundamental new insights and interpretations in every field of knowledge.

After that brief description, it almost isn’t necessary to say why graduate education is important, but let me say just a few words about why it is important focusing particularly on the second category I just mentioned, the category that requires generation of new knowledge.

We live in a world in which “fake news” means “news that I don’t want to hear” not “news that is false”, a world in which a former Justice Secretary of the UK could say in a pre-Brexit interview that “people in this country have had enough of experts.” The problem is, facts have a way of asserting themselves, perhaps not in the naive way Dr. Johnson believed when he kicked a stone and thought he’d refuted Bishop Berkeley, but they do matter. We may argue about whether Tarski had the right theory of truth, but I hope we all agree that there is something like truth, even if we can never be certain whether any particular statement is true. Because truth matters. The search for truth is the foundation of knowledge, and knowledge matters now more than ever. Not only because “Knowledge is power,” but also because only knowledge, unlike fake news, can provide reasons to which we should be responsive. Knowledge is fundamental to public deliberation and democracy.

Graduate education is fundamental both to generating new knowledge and to expanding the domain of reason. Through the course of their research, graduate students and especially doctoral students advance the frontiers of knowledge and they acquire and refine skills they will use for the rest of their lives to continue advancing those frontiers. Graduate students own the future of knowledge, and they will set the paths that future generations follow.

To reach these lofty goals requires more than a keen intellect. It requires dedication and time. Especially in a discipline like philosophy, time free from employment or teaching is time available to devote to concentrated thought and reflection, time available for the deep work necessary to refine and polish new insights and interpretations, time to spend in heated debate with colleagues, friends, and advisors to get at the truth since we can never get to it.

That’s why funds like the Millikan Endowment we are celebrating today are so important. These endowments provide talented doctoral students with the financial resources they need to devote their full time and energy to the vital work they do as scholars. But they also do far more. They demonstrate our commitment to expanding the domain of reason and to ensuring the health of our democracy. They are our pledge to the future that this and every future generation of scholars will have the freedom to pursue new insights wherever they may lead and to blaze new pathways for generations to come.

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