Fellows Reading Group
September 4, 2013
We have become a Center of tradition and ceremony. The summer is over; the term has started; and our Fellows are here. It is time for the first meeting. Our tradition is to present our new fellows with a chocolate cake on that first meeting. Well, it's not just a chocolate cake. It is a Chocolate Cake of monumental proportions. It sits in the middle of the table as the new Fellows drift in. I watch for their reactions.
We are all assembled and I turn to my list. "I suppose that the first thing we should do is to cut the cake."
Usually at this moment there's an awkward shyness that spreads around the room and, eventually, I can cajole someone to take the knife. But not in this group. Josh grabs the knife.
"Shall I start?"
We discuss the vexed question of how large the pieces shall be. "Make them small so if you want a lot you can just go back for seconds."
Soon there are enough slices on plates for everyone. They are assailed with more or less gusto according to how each feels about a rich chocolate cake in the middle of the afternoon. The cake seems to have the intended effect. It sends the subliminal signal that here you are among friends. We are sharing a moment of indulgence and happiness.
I can now turn to my speeches. Please be in your offices so we see you and can talk to you. That is what makes the Center a great place to be. Please be the kind audience in talks and discussions that you would like to have as a speaker. Then finally, I pass around the table taking the instant photos that will fill the Wall of Fame for this year.
We wait while the images form. When passably good images appear, the names are written on them and they are pinned onto the wall.
Now it is time for us to introduce ourselves, properly. I ask everyone to give a short intellectual biography. What interests you? How did you get to those interests? In the abstract, that is a daunting question. But when it is asked of you, it proves to be easy to answer. We are quite expert in our own intellectual biographies and, once started, the words flow. We fill our remaining time.
This is moment of great interest for me. It is when I start to make the discoveries of the hidden lives and connections between our fellows that will strengthen into deeper bonds as the year proceeds.
We have an interesting group. One has a history as a journalist with the Associated Press in South America. Another served on a submarine. And the intellectual biographies are surprising. What must it have been like to take a class in philosophy of science from Philipp Frank?! He had lived through the relativity revolution, written one of the early papers on relativity, had been Einstein's successor in Prague and had then gone on to be a core member of the Vienna Circle.
We move to the next new Fellow. In Italy, I find, you study Kant in high school and that has an effect that lingers. Another reported the pivotal moment in his philosophical career. He had read something that "makes no sense and I should be able to prove it." I smiled inwardly. That precise reaction to nonsense is what I have always used as my secret gauge of whether someone will have a successful career in philosophy!
Even more interesting were the connections. One had turned way from a career in physics to avoid being a "soldier in someone else's army." Another reported precisely the same decision. One had lamented that there's too much focus on epistemology in philosophy of science and not enough metaphysics. Another revealed the intension of building a new metaphysics of science.
Then there was the old question of whether "mass" means the same thing in classical and relativistic physics. It turned out that at least four of us had gotten so energized by the question that we'd written papers on it.
Our time was up. We lined up for a group photo. It took multiple tries before I found one photo in which most of us are not blinking or grimacing.
We returned to tradition. It is warm evening, with summer still lingering in the air. So we will head off to the Doublewide Grill on the Southside. There we can sit out under the warm open sky and eat the food that you'd expect in a place named after a garage.
John D. Norton