Philosophy Professorship at UChicago

This week I had a very interesting experience that gave me some insight into the process that this university uses to evaluate potential professors. My professor is a prominent member of the philosophy department, and had to attend a talk given by a prospective professor, Matthias Haase from Universität Leipzig. My class was invited to attend the talk in order to see firsthand what it’s like to try to become a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago.

So, right before the talk began, I walked into the room and saw all of my old philosophy professors and many other unfamiliar but no doubt prominent university faculty seated in the room with notepads, ready to listen. It was an intimidating scene, especially because these audience members are not your average audience members - some being among the most prominent published authors and philosophers in the US currently (ever heard of Martha Nussbaum?). So I grabbed a seat at the outer edges so as not to draw any attention to myself and pulled out my notebook to take some notes on the speaker. The speaker handed out 5 page handouts to all the audience.

He was a young, tall German man with an assertive but calm voice. In his talk he worked to defend the following thesis: Moral Hypotheticalism with respect to justice is false. Moral hypotheticalism is basically the belief that the basic principles of morality are hypothetical with respect to the actuality of others. The speaker attacked the idea that the “actuality of others” is important to the basic principles of morality as they relate to justice. The talk went on for 1 full hour, as he dissected his argument very methodically and carefully, examining several different perspectives and pointing to several excerpts from relevant texts on Ethics as he went along. He was clearly not focused on the public speaking aspect of the talk, as his posture was poor and he was reading off his paper without looking at the audience much. I assume that the content of his talk was more important than the presentation. After his hour of speaking, there was a 5-minute intermission after which the real business began: 1 hour of a Q & A session. I could tell that this was the part of the event that really made the speaker anxious and that the audience was waiting for.

While some of the material of the talk went above my head, it was the Q & A section where I really found it hard to follow what was going on. Here was a prospective professor trying to defend a thesis, and in the audience were some of the smartest people in all of philosophy absolutely grilling this guy on his talk – making completely certain that his logic was sharpened to a pin-point, that his beliefs were well-supported, and that he had thought of all possible counter-arguments and varying perspectives. It struck me as an extraordinarily rigorous process. The speaker was well prepared, however, and he answered the piercing questions readily, meticulously, and with poise.

It was tremendously interesting to watch how the whole thing played out. My next goal is to find out what happened from there – whether all the professors meet in person to discuss the speaker, or if they write evaluations, etc. – and on what metrics the final decision will be made. Stay tuned!