Enjoying the New View


by Robin Roenker
photos by Jennifer Roberts

The University of Kentucky Philosophy Department welcomed four new faculty members in fall 2010: Tim Sundell, Stefan Bird-Pollan, Meg Wallace, and Natalie Nenadic.

Their interests within the field couldn’t be more diverse—ranging, respectively, from the philosophy of language and linguistics to ethics to contemporary metaphysics (i.e., the nature of reality) and the problem of sexual objectification of women in today’s society.

But while their concentrations differ, each shares a love of philosophy itself, a love, as Wallace puts it, of “turning an argument around in [your] head for a while” until you get at a truth, however large or small, that offers insight into our word, our lives, or ourselves.

At UK, they each feel they’ve found a supportive home to foster their intellectual curiosity, even when, as in Nenadic’s case, that research takes philosophy in new and unorthodox directions or, in Wallace’s, when it runs counter at times to perceived truths.

Plus, as Sundell notes, from their offices on the fourteenth floor of Patterson Office Tower, they all have a very nice view.

Tim Sundell
Hometown: Cedarburg, Wisconsin
Degrees: BA, Reed College (Portland, Oregon); PhD, philosophy, University of Michigan
Dissertation: “Conflict and Content,” a study of disagreement and linguistic meaning
Favorite Philosophers: David Lewis and Noam Chomsky. Lewis for “the breadth and impact of his work, and how much fun he is to read.” And Chomsky for his pioneering linguistic methodology of the 1950s and 1960s.
Hobbies: Jazz

For Sundell, it’s the range of issues philosophy addresses that make the field so appealing. As he puts it, philosophy concerns itself with “everything from technical issues in formal logic to what it means to live a good life.”
Sundell is particularly interested in the philosophy of language and linguistics.

“I like it when philosophers can uncover difficulties in making sense of notions that we can’t do easily without,” he said.

Sundell investigates areas where assumptions about meaning differ between philosophers and linguists. “At the moment, I’m focusing especially on questions about so-called ‘verbal’ disagreement and how it differs from substantive disputes,” he explained.

In the classroom, Sundell’s teaching style is informal and discussion-oriented. He challenges his students to tackle tough questions head on: “To learn how to think systematically through a difficult issue, you have to grapple with the problem yourself, or as part of the group,” he said. “Philosophy teaches a style of critical thinking that can be useful in a range of careers.”

Stefan Bird-Pollan
Hometown: Vienna, Austria 
Degrees: D.Phil., modern languages, Oxford; PhD, philosophy, Vanderbilt University 
Dissertation Topic: The derivation of normativity in Kant, Hegel, Rawls, and Christine Korsgaard (a contemporary Harvard professor)
Favorite Philosophers: Kant and Hegel. Kant for his decisiveness in ethical decisions; Hegel for his understanding of how social relations affect ethical decisions.

Bird-Pollan came to Philosophy rather indirectly—after having completed an undergraduate degree in intellectual history and a doctorate in German literature.
“I noticed that my interests were beginning to [become] more and more philosophical, so I went to grad school in philosophy,” explained Bird-Pollan, whose main interests lie in the areas of ethics and political philosophy.

The UK professor currently is at work on a book about the history of ethics, which will explore Kant and Hegel’s debate on the proper foundation for morality.

His other research addresses Freud’s social thought and the relation of tolerance to the authority of state in the work of Spinoza, Mendelssohn, and Kant.

Along with his research and writing, Bird-Pollan has enjoyed his time in the classroom: “I like the challenge of giving a clear explanation of difficult questions,” he said. “I like seeing students reason in new ways.”

Meg Wallace
Hometown: All over. Has lived in Missouri, California, New York, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Arkansas, North Carolina, Ohio, and now, Lexington, KY
Education: Undergraduate work: Syracuse University and University of Oklahoma; Graduate work: University of Arkansas, Syracuse, and University of North Carolina
Dissertation Topic: Defense of the view that composition is identity, i.e., that the parts of any whole are (collectively) identical to the whole
Favorite Philosophers: David Hume, Bertrand Russell, W.V.O. Quine, and David Lewis. “All of them are fantastically clear, rigorous, and systematic. What distinguishes them from so many other philosophers is their sense of humor,” Wallace said.
Hobbies: Running, yoga, riding a scooter.
Meg Wallace has a bone to pick with Barnes and Noble: Their store heading notwithstanding, books about tarot cards and reading tea leaves do not count as “philosophy.” Misclassifications like that, she says, are one reason so many people have a misconception about the field and what it means to be a modern-day philosopher.

The art of philosophy itself—the process of crafting and analyzing an argument—is what hooked Wallace as a freshman undergraduate.

She had been trying to refute a teaching assistant’s assertion that, as St. Anselm of Canterbury proposed, one could prove God’s existence by logic and reason alone.

“I was infuriated. And intrigued,” Wallace said. “I realized that something was wrong with the argument, but I couldn’t figure out what. Then, after turning the argument around in my head for a while, I realized that just the very act of turning an argument around in my head was exciting.”

Wallace’s current interests focus on contemporary analytic philosophy, or more specifically, contemporary metaphysics. Her research centers on the nature and structure of reality. Presently, she’s defending the view that ordinary objects have spatial, temporal and “modal” parts—which is why, for example, in the case of a lump of clay turned into sculpture, you can have two material objects (clay, and sculpture) occupying the same space at the same time.

This argument, that composition equals identity (CI), or that the parts of any whole are (collectively) identical to the whole, isn’t a popular one in contemporary metaphysics—or in the history of philosophy. But for Wallace, who describes her teaching style as “upbeat-dorky,” it’s worked.

“In a strange way, this made my strategy in my dissertation relatively straight-forward,” she said. “I proceed through all of the arguments against CI one by one and attempt to show how none of them hold up under scrutiny.”

So far, she’s enjoyed how “pluralistic” UK’s Philosophy Department is. “All of us concentrate on different areas of philosophy, which gives the department breadth and diversity,” she said. “Also the fact that there are four of us [new professors] coming in this year has been really exciting. There is a lot of energy in the department.”

Natalie Nenadic
Hometown: Southern California
Education: Undergraduate work: Stanford; Graduate work: Yale
Dissertation Topic: The problem of sexual objectification and violence against women

Nenadic’s work in philosophy has been grounded in application, or as she puts it: “practical ethical work.” Her focus: sexual objectification of women by the media—particularly in pornography—and violence against women.

While a research scholar at the University of Michigan Law School, she worked with renowned attorney Catharine MacKinnon to represent Bosnian and Croatian female survivors of rape and genocide. Together, they initiated a landmark lawsuit in New York City against Radovan Karadzic, head of the Bosnian Serbs, who is currently on trial at the Hague War Crimes Tribunal. Theirs was the first case in history in which sexual atrocities were recognized as acts of genocide under international law.

Nenadic feels that the ready availability of pornography today—thanks to the pervasiveness of electronic media—has resulted in a dehumanization of women that is “historically unprecedented.”

But when she first became interested in philosophy as a way to address this dehumanization, it was from a critical perspective.

“In college I had to do some readings in contemporary European thought. I couldn’t help but notice that these writings...often reflected the problem of an increasingly pornographic and misogynistic culture, rather than challenging it. Later I began to recognize how one could also use the resources of philosophy to address such problems within it, ” Nenadic said.

Nenadic’s reality-based, or applied, approach to the philosophy of law is rather unorthodox. At UK, she has been happy to find a department with a strong feminist presence that is “willing to take a chance to support an entirely new approach to a new area of research.”

She hopes that her socially-conscious philosophical work will help challenge the public’s misconception that “philosophy has no social relevance or accountability and that it is only accessible to very narrowly trained professionals.”

While Nenadic admits some recent philosophy has been too insular, she feels the tide is changing: “We’re starting to get back in touch with a long tradition of philosophy that responded to social problems of the time.”

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