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Department of Philosophy,
Rochester Institute of Technology

The Fly Bottle

“What is our aim in philosophy? To show the fly out of the fly-bottle.”

3 April 2017

Content links:

Φ Chair’s Thoughts
Φ 2017 Undergraduate Philosophy Conference
Φ Student Spotlight: Corey Hirakawa
Φ Student Spotlight: Emilio Collins
Φ Alumni News
Φ Faculty Interview: David Suits
Φ Faculty Corner: Summer Reading
Φ Upcoming philosophy courses
Φ Newsletter archive

Chair’s Thoughts

Welcome all to the Philosophy Department Spring Newsletter! Here you will find a lot of interesting information having to do with what has been going on, or will be going on in the Philosophy Department this spring.

I invite you to enjoy these news, thoughts, curiosities, suggestions that concern philosophy students, faculty members, activities, events. I wish especially to thank John Capps, the Newsletter editor, and David Suits, the webmaster, without whose tireless work and effort this Newsletter would not be possible.

In this section, let me highlight a few accomplishments by the Department and its faculty members ever since the last Newsletter.

First of all, the Philosophy Department conducted a successful search to replace one of its irreplaceable members, David Suits, who is retiring at the end of June. The search concluded with a job offer to Dr. Irina Mikhalevich, who will join us in the fall; you will certainly hear more about her once she is here with us. For now, welcome to Dr. Mikhalevich!

While many in the Department of Philosophy pursue active research and scholarship projects, a few distinguished themselves for their research agenda and scholarly accomplishments during this past period. Among them:

Larry Torcello has been granted a professional leave during the fall to pursue various writing projects such as an article on climate change and public policy and to complete a book on liberalism, pluralism, and global justice. Sabbatical requests were very competitive this year, so congratulations to Dr. Torcello!

Evelyn Brister and Brian Schroeder have received RIT grants to pursue scholarly projects during the summer. Brian has been awarded funding to cover costs associated with travel to Bhutan to research the Buddhist philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) to assist the completion of a co-authored book, Learning from Bhutan: The Philosophy of Gross National Happiness. Evelyn has been awarded funding to cover costs associated with participating in a workshop on new ideas in ecological restoration and rewilding in Umbria, Italy in June 2017. Congratulations to Drs. Brister and Schroeder!

In addition to various journal articles and essays that many in the Department published, Silvia Benso, Brian Schroeder, and Wade Robison have seen their books appear in press. Wade’s book, Ethics Within Engineering: An Introduction, is built around a number of engaging case studies representing problems in engineering from such simple artifacts as toasters and the layout of burners and knobs on a stove top to the software responsible for the Columbia space shuttle crash. The most dramatic examples center on error-provocative designs: designs that provoke mistakes for even the most intelligent, well-informed, and highly motivated. These examples all raise ethical issues, posing questions for the reader, forcing the give-and-take of discussion in classrooms and the consideration of alternative solutions that solve the original design problem without the unfortunate features of the original solution.

Brian’s co-edited book, titled Engaging Dōgen’s Zen: The Philosophy of Practice as Awakening, is a collection of essays that open up for the reader new pathways for connecting to and making use of Dogen’s powerful teachings (Dogen is the thirteenth-century founder of Japanese Soto Zen Buddhism). Some of Soto Zen’s leading scholars and practitioners offer a masterfully guided tour of Dogen’s writings, organized around two key texts: Shushogi, which is a classical distillation of the whole of Dogen’s teachings, and Fukanzazengi, Dogen universal instructions for Zen meditation. Along the way, the reader will gain an enriched understanding of the Zen practice and realization, of shikantaza or “just sitting”, and of the essence of Mahayana Buddhism — and a much deeper appreciation of this peerless master.

Silvia’s book, titled Viva Voce: Conversations with Italian Philosophers, offers an informal overview of the background, breadth, and distinctiveness of contemporary Italian philosophy as a tradition. The twenty-three conversations are a testimony to the differences that characterize each thinker as unique and that invigorate the Italian philosophical landscape as a whole. Congratulations to Wade, Brian, and Silvia (although it is a bit weird to congratulate myself....)!

Let me take leave from you with a poem by one of my favorite Italian poets, Giacomo Leopardi — a poet dear also to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche. Although Leopardi’s words resonate more suggestively in the native Italian, the English translation renders equally well the sense of his poetic reflection, titled L’Infinito (The Infinite).

This solitary hill has always been dear to me
And this hedge, which prevents me from seeing most of
The endless horizon.
But when I sit and gaze, I imagine, in my thoughts,
Endless spaces beyond the hedge,
An all-encompassing silence and a deeply profound quiet,
To the point that my heart is quite overwhelmed.
And when I hear the wind rustling through the trees
I compare its voice to the infinite silence.
And eternity occurs to me, and all the ages past,
And the present time, and its sound.
Amidst this immensity my thought drowns:
And to flounder in this sea is sweet to me.

Happy spring to you all!

Silvia Benso Φ

2017 Undergraduate Philosophy Conference


Student Spotlight: Corey Hirakawa


Corey Hirakawa
is a 4th year philosophy major. He likes Hegel.

Fly Bottle: So, why are you a philosophy major?

Corey Hirakawa: When I first came to RIT I was a physics major but over time I lost interest. But by then I’d gotten interested in philosophy: I’d taken Introduction to Moral Issues, and a couple other courses, so I’d already started thinking about a philosophy minor. Basically, philosophy was interesting to me and there was a clear path to getting the major.

FB: What interests you about philosophy?

CH: I think it’s really interesting that there are so many unanswered questions. It’s all about discussing these questions and trying to show why your view is the right one. We want to know what truth is, or what the meaning of life is, and we want to understand these deeply rooted questions that go back a long way. I think these are really interesting questions and it’s important to try to answer them.

FB: Do you have a favorite philosopher—someone you’d recommend we all read?

CH: I don’t always have a specific answer to a question like that, but I always like reading Hegel.

FB: I hear that a lot.

CH: Actually, I like reading any of the Germans, but especially Hegel. The Phenomenology of Spirit is a little dense, at times. But there’s something aesthetic about it. When he talks about how we perceive the world that fascinates me. So it’s a confluence of factors: it’s German and it’s phenomenological. I find that appealing.

FB: William James has some tips for understanding Hegel. It involves nitrous oxide. Any classes you’d recommend?

CH: I really liked Modern Philosophy because it’s Descartes, Hume, Kant: the heavy hitters. Theories of Knowledge is interesting; also 19th Century Philosophy because that’s where Hegel comes up.

FB: What’s next?

CH: When I switched out of physics that was the big question. In physics there were lots of obvious career paths, especially here at RIT. In philosophy, my options were either graduate school, or a double major, or do something else, so I decided to do something else and so I’m applying to law school. I think there are some similarities with philosophy: law school isn’t as abstract and theoretical as philosophy, but it has the same method. Lots of debate, discourse, and trial and error. I’ve always liked arguing, so this seemed like a good thing to do with a philosophy degree.

FB: You know about the data about how philosophy majors crush the LSAT, right? [Here] Any favorite book or books you’d recommend?

CH: Just Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. I’d read that all day and all night.


Student Spotlight: Emilio Collins

CollinsEmilio Collins
is a Philosophy major from Los Angeles, CA.
He’ll be graduating this May.

Fly Bottle: Why did you choose to major in philosophy?

Emilio Collins: I came to RIT with an interest in physics, and I thought physics was the coolest thing: it explains so much and it can do all these things. But there’s a point where physics says that’s it, and I wanted to go past that point. I liked philosophy because it said that’s not it, and there are these different schools of thought where people look at more fundamental questions. I like that you have the power to push your limits and keep asking questions.

Before I decided to become a philosophy major I asked myself, “What should I do now?” Well, I like to think a lot about things, and philosophy was where I could think more. So I decided to give it a shot, I went with it, and realized this was very interesting. It just sort of took off from there.

Now I tell everyone to take a philosophy course, because there are a lot of things you learn. Especially skills: philosophy gives you the tools to get past what you previously thought. I tell my friends that philosophy is a way of going past what you’ve always thought.

FB: Do you have a favorite philosopher?

EC: That’s hard to answer. I’d probably say Richard Rorty: he’s pretty cool. Someone once said that Rorty is the red, white, and blue Nietszche who just didn’t care what other people said about him. There aren’t many other philosophers who have people foaming at the mouth because of what they’ve said. He’s on the right side of a lot of issues, but people get upset with how he gets there.

My favorite philosophers are the ones who’d be most fun to be around: the ones I’d like to see in action. I place a lot of value on fun.

FB: Lots of people think fun and philosophy don’t normally go together.

EC: That’s right. People don’t sit down with some Kant and say “I’m going to have some fun now.“

FB: Any books you’d recommend?

EC: One that really sticks with me is by Edgar Allan Poe: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. It’s about two guys who stow away on a ship and are discovered, and at the end the narrator is on a raft in the Antarctic and he sees a figure in the fog ... and then the book just ends. I’ve always wondered, what is that supposed to mean? It’s one of the few books where I just say, “oh, wow” and it left me thinking — which I think is the sign of a good book. You can’t be fed everything. A good book or movie makes you ask, “why did that just happen?”

I also read The New Yorker when I get a chance: the level of detail is just amazing and the humor is sometimes really good too. You should check out the one about philosophers’ break-up letters. [It’s here.]

FB: What’s next?

EC: Well, right now I’m applying to law school so I hope to become a lawyer some day. If that doesn’t work out, then my next best bet is to train for the 2020 Olympics in archery. Right now I’m a Certified USA Archery Level 2 Instructor; I’ll get my Level 3 soon when I have time. I love archery because it requires a lot of patience: if you want to be good at it you have to slow down, look at what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. It forces you to step back from yourself to improve what you’re doing — unlike other sports where it’s about doing it as fast and as hard as possible. I’ve been doing archery for 8 years and I love it. But sometimes it doesn’t love me back.

Also, you should ask me about skyhooks sometime. That’s a Philosophy Club inside joke.


Alumni News

  • Jeremy Berke (’15) works at Alcon Labs in Lake Forest California and is applying to graduate school.
  • Chris Boone (’12) is at Pictometry International, working on aerial image capturing and LiDAR scanning.
  • Patsy Cadareanu (’16) is working on her Masters in Microelectronic Engineering at RIT.
  • Thomas Cantone (’16) is finishing his MA in philosophy at Duquesne and applying to Ph.D programs.
  • Ian Dempsey (’16) is working as a software engineer, focusing on the environmental impact of different energy sources.
  • Joe Featherall (’11) is in his 3rd year of medical school at Case Western Reserve University.
  • Nolan Harris (’14) recently completed his MA in philosophy at American University.
  • Max Herrera (’11) is living in Montreal and working to “build a revolutionary socialist alternative to Trump.”
  • Lindsey Johnson (’13) is in her second semester at the University at Buffalo School of Law.
  • Dana Melchior (’10) is teaching English at the Beijing Foreign Studies University.
  • Jathan Sadowski (’12) recently earned his Ph.D at Arizona State and is a visiting lecturer in ethics of technology at Delft University of Technology.
  • Nate Saint Ours (’15) is pursuing an MA in philosophy at Georgia State.
  • Ben Sima (’15) is working as a software engineer for and living near San Diego.
  • Anthony Ward (’12) is working as a research analyst Institute for Justice, a think tank in Washington, DC.
  • Jeff Young (’12) is pursuing a Ph.D in computer science at Oregon State.


Faculty Interview: David Suits

Prof. David Suits has taught at RIT for 40 years. He’ll be retiring at the end of this semester.

The Fly Bottle: What was RIT like when you came here in 1977?

David Suits: RIT seemed to be a glorified high school. Things have changed dramatically. Now there are lounges, easy chairs, couches, places to have discussions. You look around and see all these places where students can sit and talk and it’s wonderful. It’s a more comfortable, welcoming place to be. When I came here RIT was hard — and harsh. We’re more of a real university now: there are carpets.

FB: What was it like to teach philosophy?

DS: In my first 10 or 15 years I think students were more apt to wonder why they were taking philosophy, why they had to take it, and what was the point. I remember someone standing up in the middle of class and asking, “How is this going to be important for my career?” But I don’t get that anymore. So maybe somehow students have been influenced by the atmosphere, recognizing that liberal arts have a place and a role here. Now I think, for example, that lots of people — faculty and students both — recognize the importance of ethics in everything they do.

When I came here it was just Jack Sanders, Dane Gordon and me. There wasn’t a department; we were called “The Philosophy Committee”. We taught three classes in each of three quarters. It was insane. The one good thing you could say was that the quarters were over with quickly.

I like the semester system more, because you can go into more detail and go a little slower. For example, today we were talking about the second best movie ever made, and that’s not the sort of thing you probably could take time to talk about on the quarter system.

FB: What is the second best movie ever made?

DS: Why, of course it is the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I even put it on our Philosophy Timeline [here].

FB: Do you have a #1?

DS: Yes, I do. But you wouldn’t believe me if I told you what it is, so I won’t.

FB: OK, then — what’s your favorite class to teach?

DS: It’s changed. For many years I liked teaching Introduction to Ethics. But then I couldn’t teach it anymore; I’d gotten so invested in a particular moral point of view that I couldn’t represent other views as well as I wanted. So I then taught Introduction to Philosophy for a while. And then I went back to Introduction to Ethics and I could do it again.

FB: What changed?

DS: Not sure. I think I became more of a Stoic. But now I’m teaching Introduction to Philosophy again and I enjoy that.

FB: You’ve also edited several books on Ancient Greek philosophy and organized several conferences.

DS: I started studying Epicurus because I’d written an article on death and realized I needed to understand Epicurus better. The conferences came out of that, so the reason was actually rather selfish. I wanted to learn more about these figures. There’s so much in philosophy that comes straight from the Greeks and we’re constantly discovering new writings and fragments of Epicurus. I just find that fascinating.

FB: What next? What are you doing after this year?

DS: Well, I’m writing a book on Epicurus called The Singularity of Death: An Epicurean Perspective, and that has to get finished. I just finished a chapter recently, so I’m looking forward to finishing the whole book. I think it will be good.

The other project is to go back to the roots of computing. I cut my teeth on an 8-bit processor, so one of my projects this summer is to buy a bunch of chips and resistors and capacitors and make myself an 8-bit computer system from scratch. I’ll write the system software, etc. And once I have that up and running I’ll make it bigger and more powerful. Good fun.

FB: You have a Masters in Computer Science, right? How did that happen?

DS: When I first came to RIT the bookstore had a big case of calculators, and some were programmable. So I bought one, because I wanted to know what all those buttons did. It was a Texas Instruments TI-58 costing over a hundred dollars, which was a lot of money back then, but I wanted to figure it out. And I did.

Once I cracked that, I was hooked. I started writing little games for the calculator and was having so much fun. There was one computer store in Rochester, and they were selling a computer built by Intelligent Systems Corporation called the Compucolor II. This was around 1979, when Radio Shack and Apple had come out with their little computers too. And this one, the Compucolor II, cost about $2,500. That was very expensive — you could almost have bought a new car for that. But I bought the computer, and I just sort of disappeared into my apartment for a while because I was so thrilled by everything having to do with that computer. I remember going in to my annual review with the Dean; she asked what I’d been doing lately, and I said I bought a computer. She said, “What? You can actually buy a computer?” because at that time few people had even heard of microcomputers; she figured a computer would take up rooms and rooms. She asked what I was going to do with it, and I said, “I’m going to create an artificial mind!” She said, “Oh, that’s interesting. What else are you going to do with it?”

I got very adept at the color graphics on this machine and wrote a little book about it. When Intelligent Systems Corporation got wind of it, they offered me a job — which I didn’t take — and they also gave my name to Disney, who wanted to have computer games in this new thing they were building in Florida that became the Epcot Center. So Disney asked if I was interested, and I was, and they flew me out to California to work on some games. I designed a taxi game where you could move a car around a screen with your finger. That was quite an experience. I flew out with some ideas and I spent about two weeks coding in assembly language. The last two days were done without sleep. It was kind of marvelous. Later they flew me down to Orlando so I could see the games in action at Epcot Center. There’s an online site devoted to Epcot Center, and there are people who remember the games (and also the Compucolor II), and that’s nice. [See here and here, for examples.]

Those are my roots in computer science. I forget what Disney paid me, but it was enough that I could buy a faster color computer that had just been produced by NEC. And I got heavily into its functioning and started a newsletter for that. Since I was so heavily involved in these things, I thought it would be nice to have some formal education, since I’d been self-taught up to that point. So I took classes, got a degree, and that was fun. And all this while I was getting feedback from the Dean saying, “Stop this computer stuff. You’re supposed to be doing philosophy!” I guess she forgot that I was going to create an artificial mind....

FB: So you see connections between computers and philosophy?

DS: There are some obvious connections: symbolic logic, and that sort of thing. But I was more interested in computer minds, especially artificial neural networks, and I think there’s still a lot of potential there. You put things together so that the chaos of their interaction leads to predictable patterns, and that’s just fascinating, since a lot of human intelligence seems to be that too: pattern recognition, pattern creation, pattern completion.

Things have changed so much in our lifetimes. I can remember the first calculator I ever saw. It was so slow it was as if it had to think, and all it did was add, subtract, divide and multiply. And now ... it’s just mind-boggling. I remember buying my first computer an extra 4K of memory — that’s kilobytes! — and it cost me about $600. And now nothing has so little memory. They’re practically giving away thumb drives with a capacity about one million times what I had to pay several weeks’ salary for. It’s just amazing.

FB: Thanks, David. We’re going to miss you!


Faculty Corner

What we are planning to read this summer.

  • Silvia Benso:
    • Gianni Vattimo, Of Reality
    • Jorge Luis Borges, The Aleph and The Library of Babel
  • Evelyn Brister:
    • John Kaag, American Philosophy
    • Grace Metalious, Peyton Place
  • John Capps:
    • John Dickson Carr, The Hollow Man
    • Michael Blome-Tillmann, Knowledge and Presuppositions
  • Colin Mathers:
    • Brian Epstein, A Cellarful of Noise
    • Spinoza, Ethics
  • Wade Robison:
    • Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies
    • Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
    • Jerome Groopman, How Doctors Think
    • Frederick Schauer, Thinking Like a Lawyer
  • Jack Sanders:
    • Peter Lewis, Quantum Ontology
    • Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway
    • David McCullough, Truman
    • Sara Paretsky, Body Work
  • David Suits:
    • Hugh M. Sierra, An Introduction to Direct Access Storage Devices
    • John Watkinson, The Art of Data Recording
  • Katie Terezakis:
    • Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend
    • Jason Stanley, How Propaganda Works
  • Larry Torcello:
    • Jürgen Zimmerer, Climate Change and Genocide: Environmental Violence in the 21st Century

Upcoming Course Offerings

See them here .


Previous newsletters

13 November 2016
2 April 2016