Five Questions: Steven Horst, Philosopher of Mind

Tagged "five questions" in the category cloud on the blog, this is the continuation of an interview series with people I find interesting. Scott Hubbard, who is the Carl Sagan Chair for the Study of Life in the Universe at the SETI Institute, was first in the series.

Professor Steven Horst is the Chair of the Department of Philosophy, Wesleyan University, Connecticut. The embedded hyperlinks in the answers provided are mine.

Wayne

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1. Prof. Horst, What attracted you to philosophy?

I have a page at my website entitled "The cartoon that inspired me to go into philosophy". Moses heard a voice from the burning bush. I got a cartoon. Go figure.

Seriously, though, I don't remember a time when I was not already, by temperament, a philosopher. I always wanted to get to the bottom of things, to get the biggest picture possible. And from an early age I tended to spot problems in how people argued for their ideas; seeing something argued badly always made me want to examine the matter more carefully. By my sophomore year in high school I started a "Metaphysics Club" and spent hours talking about conceptual, linguistic, and mathematical puzzles with my friends. Some of us were also fans of the Inklings (Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and their friends), whose professional work was in linguistics and who also wrote about philosophical and theological topics.

My first philosophy course in college at Boston University was with Alisdair Macintyre, who is one of the best lecturers I've ever heard to this day. I think Alisdair (we're on a first-name basis now) became a kind of paradigm for how to think and speak clearly. Al Plantinga played a similar role for me in graduate school at Notre Dame. I'd single out three important junctures in my undergraduate experience after that first course. The first was a course in what is now called computational neuroscience with Steve Grossberg. (I'm probably one of the few people of my generation who knew about neural networks before "old fashioned AI"). A second was the discovery of J.L. Austin's How To Do Things With Words. I wrote a thesis on speech act theory. The third was an introduction to Husserl in a course with Erazim Kohak. This led me to conclude that if one really wanted to make progress in speech act theory, one had to turn one's attention to intentionality. This was 1982, and about this time Searle must have been thinking the same thing, because Intentionality came out the next year. From there, I was hooked on philosophy of mind. The decision to write a dissertation and then a book (Symbols, Computation and Intentionality, California, 1996) on the Computational Theory of Mind was a strategic one that Ken Sayre helped me to see was a good idea. Basically, cognitive science was a growth area in philosophy, and I had a kind of background in computers, neural networks and information theory that put me in a good position to write something original there.