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Fall 2000

Walking, talking, oxymoron

50 years: SHASS timeline

Seven notables contemplate the state of humanities, arts, and social sciences at MIT and beyond.

Donald Blackmer

David Epstein

Morris Halle

Bruce Mazlish

Travis Rhodes Merritt

Paul A. Samuelson

Judith Jarvis Thomson



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Soundings is a publication of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences at MIT

Comments and questions to


Philosophy at MIT

Judith Jarvis Thomson is Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. She joined the MIT Faculty in 1964.

Philosophy at MIT has some distinctive features. First, and perhaps most striking, the philosophy of language occupies a particularly important place in it. That is not due merely to the fact that MIT's philosophy program is part of a Department of Linguistics and Philosophy: many of the members of the philosophy program have been closely connected with members of the linguistics program—and worked on problems common to both—since well before the programs were formally merged in 1976. It is due also to the fact that all the members of the philosophy program, whatever their areas of special concern, believe that developments in the philosophy of language have had a major impact on developments in philosophy generally throughout the 20th century, and indeed, that work in every area of philosophy is best done by people who keep in touch with what goes on in philosophy of language.

A second distinctive feature of philosophy at MIT is less easy to characterize. What I have in mind is, roughly, that its style is that of the ‘problem-solver'. The book is not the medium by which the philosophers here typically communicate with the rest of the philosophy world. Our typical medium is rather the journal article—addressed to a quite particular problem. It should for preference be short, but what is crucial is that it be clear: clear about what the problem is and clear about what it proposes by way of solution. I think of this style as eminently well suited to a program in philosophy at MIT.

A third distinctive feature is even less easy to characterize. I have in mind that there is something in the air here that I do not sense in other philosophy programs, namely a pressure to keep at it. A former member of the program told me he found it exhausting to be here. You have on Friday what you can finally convince your colleagues is a good idea; then you come in on Monday, and nobody says "Oh, what a wonderful idea you had on Friday," they say "Well, what did you come up with over the weekend?" You never have any money in the bank! It isn't really as bad as that. But it's in the territory.

On the other hand, there is much to be said for that attitude. What it issues in is everyone's being on a par, graduate students and faculty alike, and the work you do has to speak for itself. That is exactly as it should be.

I greatly regret that we have not managed to attract more undergraduates to our subject. Many come to our introductory courses, but only a few carry on into more advanced work. That is not surprising, given why they come to MIT. But it is a pity, for them, as well as for us. Those who do carry on, however, are a great pleasure to teach—smart, lively and noisy. I will miss them.



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Fall 2000