Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He holds a Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology (University of Connecticut) and one in Philosophy (University of Tennessee). His areas of interest are the philosophy of science, the controversies over pseudoscience and—oddly—modern Stoicism.
What are you most proud of in your professional life?
Having been able to make a career-move from the natural sciences (biology) to philosophy (of science). It was the result of a midlife crisis, really. I felt that I had fun as a biologist for over two decades, but that I needed a new set of challenges. And I had loved philosophy ever since studying it in high school in Italy. A combination of luck and (sort of) planning made it possible, and I can’t believe it actually happened.
What excites you about philosophy?
Oh, where to begin. Feeling like I am, however small, a part of a tradition of thought that goes back two and a half millennia; the broader range of topics I can work on (compared to science); the freedom to pursue my interests without having to write large grant proposals (seriously, that was beginning to be a major drag as a scientist); answering “I’m a philosopher” when people ask me what I do at cocktail parties, and then watching how they react…
What’s your personal philosophy?
Stoicism. It has been a long journey since I first encountered it while studying ancient Greco-Roman history in high school. But I was too young then to really appreciate it. For most of my adult life, I considered myself a secular humanist: basically a politically and socially progressive atheist. But then I (re)discovered virtue ethics, and eventually moved from Aristotle to Seneca and Epictetus. It immediately felt like a natural fit, and I now don’t just read about it, but try to practice it to the best of my abilities.
What do you like to do outside work?
What do you mean, “outside” work?! Seriously, the line between work and non-work for me is pretty fuzzy, for the simple reason that I love what I do, and that a great part of my so-called spare time goes into public outreach, which I enjoy immensely—but it really still is work. Nonetheless, I live in New York City for a reason (it wasn’t a byproduct of finding a job: I first moved there and then I got a job), which means art museums and galleries, opera and jazz, as well as occasionally biking from lower Manhattan to the Cloisters.
What are your goals and aspirations outside work?
To be the best human being I can be. A good father to my daughter, a good companion to my partner, a good friend to people I care for. It ain’t easy; I’m in training…
If you could have a one-hour conversation with any philosopher from any time, whom would you pick, and what topic would you choose?
Epictetus. The guy was amazing. Started as a slave, got freed, founded his school, got kicked out of Rome by that crazy bastard of the emperor Domitian, established a new school in Nicopolis, and late in life adopted a young boy to save him from certain death. But I’d like to talk him out of so much referencing of God in his lectures, to bring him back to a classic Stoic conception of God as Nature. I think I could manage it. Though an hour may not be enough.
Where is your favorite place you have ever traveled, and why?
Delphi. When you are there, you immediately see why the ancient Greeks thought it was a sacred place. And bear in mind that I don’t believe in gods, Olympian or otherwise. It has a surreal landscape, with a type of quiet that gently nudges you toward contemplation and meditation.
Find out more about Massimo here and here. Click here to read his article “When Philosophy of Science Matters: Pseudoscience, Public Health, and Public Policy“. Photo © Simon Wardenier.
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