March 2002


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Written by
Jason Togyer

Photograph by
Rob Long © 2001


John MacFarlane photo copyright 2001 Rob Long, courtesy of Coal Train


Sometimes John MacFarlane accepts things as they are, and sometimes he improvises. Take music. When he was seven, his parents encouraged him to learn the violin; frankly, he says, it sounded “pretty awful a lot of the time.” Years later, while he worked on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, a janitor heard him, and suggested he try fiddling.

The transition wasn’t easy; rather than following the notes on a page, MacFarlane was making the music up as he went along. He didn’t give up. Over and over, he listened to recordings of the best fiddlers in bluegrass and he got better.

Meanwhile, as he grew up near Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, teachers and friends assumed MacFarlane was destined to become a physicist. A summer working at the lab put a stop to that: Scientists, he learned, “spent a lot of time grinding down tungsten plates to a certain thickness. It wasn’t for me.”

A desire to “think about the big picture,” and his discovery of classic Greek philosophy led him down a different career path. After receiving his BA in philosophy from Harvard, he came to Pitt to pursue a PhD. He pursued fiddling in Pittsburgh, too, as part of a bluegrass band called Coal Train. Friends called him the Fiddleosopher.

MacFarlane’s doctoral thesis at Pitt reflects his unconventional thinking. He explained—by attending carefully to the history of our conceptions of logic—why current logic debates weren’t going anywhere. The novel approach was well received; after he received his doctorate last year, five universities bid for his services, and last fall, he landed on the cover of the Chronicle of Higher Education* as one of “Four New PhDs to Watch.”

An “inveterate Westerner,” MacFarlane accepted a professorship* at the University of California at Berkeley. There, he contributes to the departments of philosophy and of group logic and methodology of science. When he’s not breaking down old boundaries between the two, he’s still fiddling.

—Jason Togyer

*—denotes an external link. Links to external websites are offered for informational purposes only and the information there is not guaranteed or endorsed by the University of Pittsburgh or its affiliates.

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