Department of Philosophy

20 years of CEU; 10 years of philosophy at CEU; 2500 years of philosophy

Profile of the department

Philosophy is one of the oldest disciplines in our intellectual tradition, and, unlike other ancient disciplines such as mathematics, for example, philosophy has always considered its history as an integral part of the discipline. All of us in the Department of Philosophy at CEU believe that a critical study of the history of philosophy has great benefits, partly for its own sake, and partly because of the way it helps to tackle problems in contemporary philosophy.

The benefits result from the peculiar dual character of our relations to our philosophical predecessors. On the one hand, many fundamental questions of philosophy—who we are, what the nature of the world is, how we should live—are very much the same today as they were for, say, the Presocratics. On the other hand, many of the basic concepts and background assumptions that shape our understanding of these questions have gone through radical changes since the beginnings of philosophical inquiry. One of the most interesting tasks of philosophy is to identify, articulate and possibly critically evaluate some of the unquestioned assumptions that lie behind our everyday and scientific thinking. A contrast with thinkers of other eras helps to throw these assumptions into relief.

In the department's 10 years of existence (it was established in 2000), the spirit of the CEU philosophy program has been guided by two complementary principles: an approach to contemporary philosophical problems that is informed by an historical awareness, and an approach to history that uses the analytic tools of contemporary philosophy. These principles have been reflected in the curriculum of the program and in a wide range of publications and recent work by members of the department. We offer here a few representative examples.

Howard Robinson, in his book, Perception (Routledge, 2001), frames his discussion of the philosophical theories of perceptual experience by the early modern empiricist theories of experience. Gabor Betegh’s The Derveni Papyrus (Cambridge University Press, 2004) is a thorough historical and philosophical investigation of an ancient document in its cultural and intellectual context. In her book, The Subject’s Point of View (Oxford University Press, 2008) Katalin Farkas joins the contemporary debate on mental content by defending a position that takes its inspiration from Descartes’s Meditations. Ferenc Huoranszki’s Freedom of the Will (Routledge, 2010) provides a novel interpretation of G. E. Moore’s famous conditional analysis of free will. Hanoch Ben-Yami works on contemporary philosophy of language and science (see, for example, his Logic and Natural Language, Ashgate, 2004), and he is also in the process of completing a manuscript on Descartes. Among the topics that David Weberman researches is the philosophy of history (see his Historische Objektivität, Peter Lang, 1991), and his recent work focuses on the theory of interpretation, including a theory of interpreting historical philosophical texts. Mike Griffin's forthcoming book (Cambridge University Press) investigates Leibniz's views on modality by mobilizing the framework of contemporary metaphysical and logical theories of modality. Janos Kis works mainly on political philosophy (see his Politics As a Moral Problem, CEU Press, 2008), and he is also the translator of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.

Developments within the last decades

Throughout its history, philosophy has had many points of connection with the sciences. An interesting inquiry in recent years concerned the relationship between ancient philosophy and science. CEU has a strong focus on ancient philosophy, with a particular focus on, among other topics, ancient philosophies on nature and theories of cosmology. The department organized three high-profile SUN summer school courses on Philosophy and Science in the Greco-Roman World in collaboration with some of the world's leading representatives of the field.

The relationship between the sciences and philosophy has much relevance in contemporary thinking as well. In the 20th century, radically opposing views emerged about this relationship. Some thinkers urged a strong adherence to the methodology of the natural sciences, with, for example, the influential American philosopher W.v.O. Quine, who went so far as to relinquish the autonomy of a philosophical method and asserted the goal of assimilating philosophy into the empirical disciplines. Others, mainly in the continental tradition, have seen philosophers' attempts to emulate the natural sciences as manifestations of the failed project of the enlightenment.  

Interestingly, even though Quine argued, on general grounds, that philosophical epistemology should become part of empirical psychology, he himself had never shown much interest in actual results in psychological research. This attitude is much more rare today. The last decades showed a rapidly growing interest in an interdisciplinary approach to many traditional philosophical questions, for example in the study of mind and cognition. The recent establishment of a cognitive science program at CEU, which has close ties to the Department of Philosophy, provides an excellent opportunity for such interdisciplinary work. The Center for Cognitive Development is currently running the first experiment that is jointly designed by a CEU psychologist and a CEU philosopher. In 2009, the department organized the annual conference of the European Society of Philosophy of Psychology, the largest interdisciplinary meeting in Europe for philosophers, psychologists and linguists.

Another natural interdisciplinary connection is with the Department of Political Science. We have two joint appointments, and political philosophy has been one of the foci of the department's research, both by the faculty and our PhD students.


Future directions within the discipline

Without any attempt at completeness, let us mention two more recent developments in the discipline that are likely to set the agenda for many research projects in the coming years.

One is something that we could characterize, very broadly, as the study of the role of context in language and cognition. A hotly debated question is the borderline between semantics and pragmatics—that is, the contribution of the context of utterance and the context of evaluation to the content of linguistic expressions. One related issue is the viability of a coherent theory of relative truth, and an adequate model of disagreement. The issue has far-reaching consequences also for the fields of epistemology and the philosophy of mind. CEU, along with some of the most influential participants of this debate, hosted a SUN summer school program/session (whatever) in July 2010, on Meaning, Context and Intention, with 70 students and junior faculty members attending.

The other development is a concern with metaphilosophy: an effort in philosophy to reflect on its own methods. We mentioned above certain programmatic efforts to assimilate philosophy into the empirical sciences. These efforts have probably failed. But then we are left with the question of what is indeed specific about the methods of philosophy, as opposed to science.