Massimo Pigliucci is Professor of Philosophy at CUNY-City College. In addition to that, he is also the creator of Footnotes to Plato, a fantastic blog filled with essays and podcasts on general philosophy & practical Stoicism. In this interview, we have touched on a wide range of topics from his time studying in Italy, to his favourite books, spoiler alert – one of them is The Demon-haunted World by Carl Sagan. It has been an absolute joy to interview Massimo and we hope you enjoy reading about his life.
Q: What is your dinner party monologue for when someone says “and what do you do?”
A: Very short: “I’m a philosopher.” Usually, they change the subject immediately or walk away. Sometimes they say something stereotypical, like, “so, you spend your day staring out the window, thinking?” So I stare at them, thinking.
Q: Could you tell us about where you grew up; were you a rural or city dweller?
A: I grew up in Rome, definitely a city dweller, which is why I live in New York now. I always liked the hustle and bustle of the big city, the multicultural variety, the idea that you can meet someone interesting at every turn. And neither city has ever disappointed my expectations.
Q: What subject(s) did you excel at in school, and which did you find most challenging?
A: I loved the sciences, especially biology and astronomy, though I found math rather challenging, until later on (in college), when I decided to tackle it more seriously. It turned out to be far easier than I had expected. I also loved reading Italian and English literature, and philosophy (in Italy you have to take three years of it in high school). I found Latin both challenging and rewarding.
Q: Can you recall any recurring comments from your school reports?
A: Not really. I do remember my Italian teacher who was frustrated by the fact that, when given a choice, I always decided to write composition essays about current affairs rather than literature. So one time she did not give me a choice, I had to turn in a write-up on a book we had read. I did it, but I also submitted a second essay, on a current event, and demanded that she graded both. I was a slight pain in the ass.
Q: Did you ever have a eureka moment where you thought, “this is the subject I want to study”?
A: Yes, in college. I was studying biology but had no clear idea of which subfield or specific topic. Then I came across a classic paper by geneticist Richard Lewontin, entitled “The analysis of variance and the analysis of causes.” It was about gene-environment interactions (i.e., nature vs nurture). I immediately thought, “that’s it, that’s what I’m going to work on!” Which I did, throughout my entire career as a biologist.
Regarding your undergraduate studies:
Q: Which University did you study at, and was it your first choice?
A: Italians don’t have a concept of “the first choice,” we usually go to the nearest university to where we grow up. They are all public anyway. I went to the University of Rome “La Sapienza.”
Q: What undergraduate degree did you study for at University, and in hindsight would you select the same subject again?
A: Biology, and yes, it was the right choice, and served me well for my first academic career, before I turned to philosophy in my ‘40s.
Q: Can you remember a University lecturer who really inspired you?
A: Several. Antonio Damato was my undergraduate thesis supervisor, an exquisite person who nurtured me during my first steps on an academic career. Mario Ageno, my professor of biophysics, stern and brilliant. Umberto Nicosia, my professor of palaeontology, witty and unconventional. We later became good friends.
Regarding your postgraduate studies:
I always wanted to be a scientist, since I was a kid.
Q: What motivated you to further pursue academia?
A: I always wanted to be a scientist, since I was a kid. For me, there was really no other path I ever seriously contemplated (though my plan B was to become a science journalist). Family lore has it that I announced my decision on the night of July 20, 1969 (when I was five), on the occasion of the first Moon landing.
Q: What institution(s) did you study at in your pursuit of postgraduate education?
A: The University of Ferrara, in northeastern Italy, where I obtained my doctorate in genetics. But then I moved to the United States, and I did a PhD in evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut. Much later on, when I moved to philosophy, I did a PhD at the University of Tennessee (where I was a full professor of biology, at the time).
Q: What was the title of your PhD thesis, and how would you explain your findings to a novice?
A: I don’t actually remember the title! But it was a series of experiments on gene-environment interactions using a model plant system, the small weed Arabidopsis thaliana. The goal was to see how different genetic backgrounds within the same species equipped these plants to deal with environmental stresses, from lack of water to low nutrients to low light. We found that Arabidopsis is so successful in its habitat in part because it is extremely “plastic,” meaning that its genes allow it to respond in a flexible manner, physiologically and developmentally, to challenging environmental conditions. The research was part of a broader project, pursued by many laboratories, to understand what role this “plasticity” plays in evolution.
Q: If you had your time as a student again, what would you do, if anything, differently?
A: Not much, really. Whenever I look back it seems to me those were the right choices, and I would make them again, or very similar ones.
Q: Tell us about your current research focus?
A: I have switched fields years ago, and my scholarship is now in the philosophy of science. I’m interested in two broad areas: the structure and evolution, if you will, of evolutionary theory; and the so-called demarcation problem, how to differentiate between science and pseudoscience. The first project is about understanding current debates in evolutionary biology, whereby people are discussing whether standard evolutionary theory, referred to as the “Modern Synthesis” is still adequate or whether it needs to be rethought and expanded into what some (including me) are calling the “Extended Synthesis.” It has to do with the nature of scientific theorizing and its relationship with empirical evidence, but also some sociological aspects of doing science.
The second project is about conceptualizing what science is and how it differs from non-science. It has practical applications since a lot of dangerous pseudoscientific notions are being floated around (e.g., vaccines causing autism), and a lot of good science (evolution, climate research) is branded as non-scientific or even pseudo-scientific because of people’s allegiances to religious or political ideologies.
Q: What do you believe is your single most important piece of research?
A: I’m not sure anything I do rises to the level of “important,” but I’m proud of a few papers I published when I was a practical biologist, especially on the role of phenotypic plasticity (see above) in shaping the evolution of populations. My most notable contribution in that sense is a book co-authored with my former mentor, Carl Schlichting, entitled Phenotypic Evolution: A Reaction Norm Perspective (Oxford Press). As a philosopher, together with my colleague Maarten Boudry at Ghent University in Belgium, we edited a book (The Philosophy of Pseudoscience, Chicago Press) that basically put back on the map the issue of science-pseudoscience demarcation, which had been neglected by philosophers for decades.
My experience is that it is rather unwise to make predictions, even about the near future, even in science.
Q: Within your area of study, what breakthroughs are on the horizon?
A: I do philosophy, it’s a field that moves slowly, and to which the word “breakthrough” hardly applies. Also, my experience is that it is rather unwise to make predictions, even about the near future, even in science. Still, I’d say the most exciting areas of philosophy of science have to do with the status of fundamental physics (which is currently in a mess, with people vehemently disagreeing on the value, or lack thereof, of ideas like string theory and the multiverse) and with advances in evolutionary biology (there is a lot of excitement these days about how we should think of holobionts, the realization that we are all walking mini-ecosystems, made of lots and lots of species of bacteria and other microorganisms).
Q: Let your imagination take over for a minute and tell us what you hope your successors will be researching in 2116?
A: I haven’t the foggiest idea.
Q: What do you feel your professional legacy will be?
A: Again, “legacy” is a big word, which ill-suits me. But I suppose I may be remembered by some for two major reasons: as someone deeply interested in the connections, rather than the divisions, between science and philosophy; and as one of those few philosophers who think that the discipline ought to make a difference in people’s lives, or it becomes self-indulgent navel-gazing. In the first area, for a long time there has been far too much misunderstanding and even reciprocal contempt between the sciences and the humanities, just read C.P. Snow’s classic essay on the two cultures. That sort of animosity is silly and doesn’t serve anyone’s interest, and I have been devoting a significant amount of time to help overcome it. In terms of practical philosophy, I do a lot of outreach (blogs, podcasts, public lectures, and so forth), but the most important aspect of it is my interest in Stoicism as a live philosophy for the 21st century. A lot of people write to me to tell me how personally helpful they have found my writings on Stoicism, and how the philosophy has changed their life for the better. It is a very satisfying feeling, rare for an academic.
Q: Are you working on any extra-curricular projects at the moment, such as: books, podcasts, websites, or speaking?
A: Always! Other than my two blogs (platofootnote.org and howtobeastoic.org), and my daily podcast (Stoic Meditations: https://anchor.fm/stoicmeditations), my two major projects at the moment are books, one co-authored and one co-edited. The first one is a workbook of Stoic exercises, which I’m writing together with my friend Greg Lopez, to be published by The Experiment next year. It’s a practical book, for people who want to try out Stoicism as a philosophy for everyday life and see how it fits them. The second book is going to be co-edited with my friends and colleagues Skye Cleary and Dan Kaufman, and published next year by Vintage, an imprint of Random House. The idea is that a number of authors explore a particular philosophy of life or religion that they are actually living (e.g., Stoicism, Existentialism, Christianity, Buddhism, Daoism), so that readers can get a sense of the variety of philosophies, how they differ, and how they often converge on similar precepts for a life worth living.
Advice and Tips
Q: If you could give your 18-year-old self one piece of advice, what would it be?
A: Slow down, you’ve got time. But they are not going to listen, they are 18-yr olds.
Q: What advice would you give someone looking to start, or progress his or her career in your field?
A: Think very carefully before deciding to do it, because the chances of landing a decent job in academic philosophy are pretty slim. Then again, if it truly is your passion, throw caution to the wind and do it. You can always find another job with the analytical skills you will have honed in the meantime.
Q: Which book would you say has had the biggest impact on your life?
A: Tough one, there have been a number, so I’ll list more than one: Advice to a Young Scientist by Peter Medawar, which excited me when I was in high school and beginning to seriously consider an academic career; Why I am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell, which solidified the reasons for my atheism; The Demon-haunted World by Carl Sagan, which made me appreciate the role of science in fighting superstition; The Panda’s Thumb by Stephen Jay Gould, which further enhanced my enthusiasm for evolutionary biology; and Discourses by Epictetus, which introduced me to Stoicism as a philosophy of life.
Q: If you could recommend one book to a novice in your field, what would it be?
A: What is This Thing Called Science? by Alan Chalmers, one of the best and most exciting introductions to philosophy of science. I read the first edition when I was in college, and the most recent, third edition, is still as good as it gets.
Being a freethinker comes with the responsibility of honing one’s reasoning skills, of being informed before proffering an opinion, and of respecting other people’s opinions.
Q: Why do you think being a freethinker is important?
A: Because thinking is important, it is what distinguishes human beings from any other species on earth. And it’s the sort of thing that ought to be done freely, meaning without impositions from authorities of any sort, be they religious, political, or otherwise. Of course, just because one thinks on his own doesn’t mean one is right all the time, or even most of the time. Being a freethinker comes with the responsibility of honing one’s reasoning skills, of being informed before proffering an opinion, and of respecting other people’s opinions, regardless of how different they happen to be from our own.
Q: And finally, we are back at the dinner party. Someone offers you a drink, what do you ask for?
A: A dirty martini, vodka, up, with olives.
If you’d like to find out more about Professor Massimo Pigliucci you can check out his Facebook page, Twitter profile and his Wikipedia page.
Books Recommended by Professor Massimo Pigliucci