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John Turri

philosophical science

about

occupation

I’m a philosopher and cognitive scientist at the University of Waterloo. My current research focuses on social cognition and communication, using tools from philosophy and experimental psychology. Before taking up my position at Waterloo, I held a tenure-track position at the University of Western Ontario (specifically, Huron University College). My favorite parts of the job are working with brilliant and inspiring people and the thrill of discovering new things.

education

I earned an MA and PhD in philosophy from Brown University. I earned a BA (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) in history and philosophy from Wayne State University. I learn more from teaching than I did as a student. I’ve always learned best through informal collaboration and spontaneous exploration. Alas, I admit to allowing school to interfere with my education.

origin

I'm originally from Detroit, where I grew up. One branch of my family tree extends back to seventeenth-century colonial Virginia. Other branches trace to different regions of modern Italy, including Sicily and Piedmont. My family owns and operates an Italian food manufacturing business in southeastern Michigan, Turri's Italian Foods. I worked there before entering academia. My surname derives from the city Turin. From my perspective, it is thus somewhat ironic that Turin ended up being known as “the Detroit of Italy.”

“Men must be taught as if you taught them not,
And things unknown proposed as things forgot.”
— Alexander Pope

philosophy?

When people learn that I'm a philosopher, they often ask one of two questions. On the one hand, they might ask me, “So, what’s your philosophy?” By “philosophy" they mean a memorable aphorism worthy of Poor Richard’s Almanack. I very much appreciate the sentiment behind this question because it presupposes that philosophy is practical and contributes to wise living. Academic philosophers are not trained to produce philosophy of this sort. But, still, I play along. I’ll quote Pope on pedagogy or say something like, “When you think you're certain, think again,” or “Excuse is the offspring of failure. When made conspicuous, it displeases more than its parent.” This usually does the trick.

On the other hand, they might ask me what philosophy is or what a philosopher does. This is harder to answer. As a first approximation, philosophy is an ongoing conversation defined by a set of questions and answers. Philosophers participate in this conversation. Learning philosophy requires learning what these questions and answers are, along with an appreciation for why, allegedly at least, the questions matter and the answers are persuasive. Learning how to do philosophy requires learning how to influence the conversation by affecting either the set of questions being asked or the set of answers being seriously considered. Doing philosophy well requires influencing the conversation beneficially. This, in turn, requires contributing to the evaluation of old questions and answers, and to the appreciation of new ones. As a philosopher, this is what I try to do.

“Wise men now agree, or ought to agree in this, that there is but one way to the knowledge of nature’s works: the way of observation and experiment.”
– Thomas Reid

philosophical science?

Philosophy is a conversation defined by a set of questions and answers, but this doesn’t automatically make philosophy a form of inquiry, much less a form of legitimate inquiry. Inquiry requires posing evaluable questions and answers about reality, with the aim of improving our understanding. Inquiry is not the only way to improve our understanding of reality — sometimes we stumble upon information by sheer luck. Similarly, posing and answering questions needn’t aim at understanding — sometimes it’s therapeutic, for amusement, for deception, or to express ourselves. Beyond all of that, legitimate inquiry requires basing answers on appropriate evidence, hopefully with a sense of one’s own fallibility and the limitations of one’s methods and procedures. Purely speculative conversation may have its uses, but it can count as no more than abortive or degenerate inquiry.

I practice philosophy as a form of inquiry continuous with science. This approach to philosophy is certainly not original to me. In fact, it is as old as philosophy itself and it has undergone a renaissance over the last fifty years, largely coinciding with the growth of cognitive science. Nevertheless, in many circles of modern academic philosophy, the idea of philosophical science is viewed with suspicion or even outright hostility. I attribute this to an unfortunate failure, namely, overlooking just how philosophical the human scientific enterprise can be and often is.