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Tale of the Mighty Living

Pitt professor among very distinguished company

Before standing at a lectern opposite 120 University of Pittsburgh undergraduates; before spending an hour discussing the weekly writing of a doctoral candidate in a Cathedral office filled with books on everything from empiricism to C++ to gravitation; before meeting with a foreign student studying his work; before doing editorial assignments for one of the journals he serves as a board member; before preparing for or delivering presentations in Canada, England, France, Germany, Italy, or the United States—places where he goes to "show the flag" of the department; before leaving the comfort of his Pittsburgh home; before what he modestly refers to as "the busyness of the day" sets in, Robert Brandom writes. He writes because while he earns his living as a professor, he has come to "think of philosophy as writing and of [himself] as a professional writer first." Indeed, the writing, a kind of abstract creative nonfiction, is his passion, what he affectionately calls his work. "The wonderful thing about an academic job," says Brandom, a Distinguished Service Professor of Philosophy at Pitt, "is that your work is actually part of your job."

Robert Brandom

And the wonderful thing about Brandom’s work is that it has, in recent years, come to be admired and honored around the world. But that is all just an added bonus. Indeed, as his wife, Barbara Wendeborn Brandom, a pediatric anesthesiologist and professor in the University’s School of Medicine, can attest, "he has been seriously doing philosophy for decades," even spending 18 years on writing one book, Making It Explicit (Harvard University Press), which grew from his 1976 dissertation.

"It took that long," he shrugs, "because it’s a great big, ambitious project, and it had to all be done right for any of it to count as having been done right." His is a species of dedication that has proven to be hereditary, or at least contagious.

His younger son, Russell, a freshman at Yale University, has "learned to read and write and argue and cook" like his father, says Barbara. In addition, Russell has also absorbed a certain distinction that is emphasized by Brandom: that everyone should have work that they hope to accomplish in life that isn’t merely about making money. Brandom has done an especially admirable job of reconciling and coalescing. He finds ways of uniting divergent aspects of his life: teaching, cooking, writing, parenting. This is paradigmatic of his extensive ability to juxtapose and fuse—illustrated, too, by the way he weaves together morsels of intellectual history in his most recent book, Tales of the Mighty Dead (Harvard University Press). Brandom is a philosopher who has distinguished himself by uncovering formerly imperceptible connections among ideas, individuals, and disciplines. These efforts are not confined to his literary contributions; Brandom regularly acts as a catalyst drawing together otherwise idiosyncratic groups of scholars. In particular, he often becomes a bridge uniting the two philosophical halves of Germany’s Jena University. Four to six times a year, Brandom leaves Pittsburgh International Airport aboard a US Airways flight destined for Germany. In Jena last year, he gave lectures celebrating the 200th anniversary of the legendary German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s arrival at Jena—a date initially significant to only half of the department, the scholars of this noted "mighty dead" philosopher. Jena’s other contingent of philosophers are followers of another legend who was associated with that institution: Gottlob Frege—the founder of modern mathematical logic.

While the respective groups are amicable, "the Hegel and Frege scholarly communities have virtually no overlap," says Brandom. "It is not uncommon for their doctoral students never to have met each other." It’s as if one group was teaching chemistry and the other medieval history. Brandom can harmonize these esoteric specialties just as he does in his writing. Tales of the Mighty Dead—an unconventional reflection on much of the historical groundwork of philosophical thought—addresses both Hegel and Frege, among others. The book unites "a very motley group" of thinkers and their thoughts, unites them through common threads that Brandom has been able to retrospectively discern.

These same threads also are the focus of his masterwork, the 741 pages that compose Making it Explicit, a systematic look at how the use of concept distinguishes human beings from the rest of the world. In Jena, Making it Explicit, otherwise known as Expressive Vernunft in its 1,001-page German translation, is studied by students of both factions. The book is Brandom’s work, the embodiment of nearly two decades of his passion. Fittingly, it is an endeavor that has earned him international recognition, appealing to differing groups of contemporary philosophers—such as the Hegel and Frege scholars at Jena.

More recently, Brandom’s recognition has taken the noteworthy form of the Mellon Foundation’s Distinguished Achievement Award—a world-renowned academic award that provides $1.5 million for scholarly pursuits. It is one of the largest grants in the world for individual academic achievement. He plans to use part of the funding to catalogue the papers of late Pitt Professor of Philosophy Wilfrid Sellars, who is widely regarded as one of the pioneers in the genre of philosophy of mind. Sellars taught at the University from 1963 until his death in 1989 and is someone whom Brandom greatly admired.

The Mellon award has further strengthened Brandom’s position in the global philosophical community, leading to speaking engagements this year alone in Finland, Scotland, England, Germany, and China, where he, no doubt, will be greeted by disciples of various philosophers who are aware of Brandom's impact on contemporary philosophical thought.

It’s unlikely any of them will be disappointed with the featured speaker. In naming Brandom a winner of the achievement award, the foundation noted that he is "one of the most creative philosophers of language and mind working today." Or, as the leader of the award’s selection panel, University of Virginia English Professor Patricia Meyer Spacks, simply says, "He’s obviously a philosopher whom other philosophers admire."

Elizabeth Cowan


Breakthroughs in the Making

Special Alert

Taking the guesswork out of disaster response is the goal of an integrated data monitoring system being developed at the University of Pittsburgh. The National Science Foundation awarded Pitt $2.8 million to develop the system, which will integrate data from outdoor cameras and utility, traffic, and weather sensors. The data will be used to come up with the best way to deal with emergencies as they happen. Cities nationwide will be able to use the system.

Bonjour

Advancements in organ transplantation, psychiatry, and neurobiology are among the possibilities created by a collaborative research agreement reached between the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the French Institute of Health and Medical Research. The agreement was a first for the institute, which is the French equivalent of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.


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