Faculty Spotlight: Nathanael Stein

Stein recently won an NEH Fellowship, allowing him to take a yearlong sabbatical to complete his forthcoming book. Photo by FSU Photography Services.

Nathanael Stein is an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy, part of the College of Arts and Sciences.

1. Tell us a little about your background.

I grew up outside New York City and studied lots of things in college, but nothing really grabbed me, including philosophy. When I became interested in philosophy a few years later, I earned a master’s degree from City University of New York, then a doctorate at Oxford. I came to FSU in 2011, after a post-doc in Berlin and a visiting post at Western Michigan University.

2. When did you first become interested in philosophy?

After college, I worked a lot of random jobs while considering what to do next. I picked up a couple of books, including some of Plato’s dialogues. This time I was hooked and realized these philosophers were asking about things that had puzzled me.

All through his early dialogues, Plato has Socrates ask versions of those same questions I had been wondering about: How should we live? How should we think about how to live?  Both questions seem to make perfect sense, but it’s hard to answer either one separately, let alone together. That difficulty was something I found compelling.

3. What are your current research interests, and what makes you passionate about them?

I’m especially interested in two topics that look different at first, but connect with each other.

First, disagreements we tend to have about why things happen. Say, after an election, when we try to figure out why X won rather than Y. One person might point to something candidate X was proposing as the reason X won, another might point to a certain part of the electorate not voting for Y. Most of these disagreements are not actually about the facts — we tend to agree on those. Instead, we disagree about which facts are important and which have explanatory value. Much of the time we’re disagreeing about what kinds of explanations are good and what are bad, and that’s a philosophical disagreement.

Aristotle thinks we naturally desire knowledge, and look for causes — we don’t just want to know what happens, but why. Sometimes we even make something up and convince ourselves it’s the right explanation rather than live with the feeling that we don’t have one. Aristotle’s complex theory of causal explanation dominated Western philosophy and science for about 2,000 years, but hasn’t been looked at as a whole in a long time. Right now, there are many competing theories of causal explanation, and I think it will help to get a clearer picture of the theory that got things going.

The second project has to do with how imagination figures into our decisions, especially the ways it can be a source of mistakes — misconceptions, bad decisions and false expectations. Imagination is clearly important in the way we think about ourselves, our plans, and so on, but it’s hard to study with precision.

The two topics are connected because they relate to two different ways we distinguish appearance from reality — what seems to be the case from what really is the case. On one hand, looking for causes involves looking for connections that aren’t apparent on the surface, but make sense of a wide range of data. On the other hand, imagination is often involved in a mistaken view of things, a failure to see them as they really are.

These questions are compelling because they relate back to that basic idea that we all have a natural desire to know. We can broadly describe acquiring that knowledge as moving from appearance to reality, but the details of different ways we do this are fascinating.

4. What do you want the public to know about your research? Why is your topic important?

These questions sound abstract, but we deal with them every day, often without noticing. The answers can have concrete consequences. Having public education and public research universities, like FSU, reflects a commitment to answering complex questions about the nature of knowledge, expertise, training, and what’s in the public interest.

At the more personal level, we’re flooded with information every day. We want to know not just what to trust, but what deserves our attention — what’s worth focusing on, how to connect it with other things we know, or how to respond to something that seems to conflict with other things we believe. In essence, that’s what my work is about; the kinds of knowledge we think are most important, and how that knowledge is acquired, organized and transmitted.

5. Who are your role models? Who has influenced you most in your life?

Probably my parents, who taught me about the value of stimulating work, wine, music and bread, not necessarily in that order.

6. What brought you to Florida State University? Why do you enjoy working at FSU?

We have an excellent and growing philosophy department and a healthy sense of making demands on ourselves without giving in to unhealthy pressures. I love working at a large public university in such a diverse place like Florida, where students come from so many different backgrounds.

7. What is your favorite part of your job?

I get to take whatever I’m most curious about and study it through research and teaching. That’s a huge and lucky thing to have.

8. What is the most challenging part of your job?

Finding opportunities to collaborate with people in other departments. The best interactions like that are spontaneous, but you need to create opportunities for that kind of spontaneity in an environment as large and spread out as ours.

9. How do you like to spend your free time?

I have two young children, so that’s pretty much it!

10. If your students only learned one thing from you (of course, hopefully they learn much more than that), what would you hope it to be?

We don’t choose whether to engage with philosophical questions or have philosophical opinions. We already have them by the time we’re teenagers, acquired from any number of sources — some reputable, some not — usually in a random way. We express those philosophical opinions all the time, not just in our explicit thinking but in our actions and decisions.

Even a seemingly concrete, personal decision like choosing your major is actually expressing an opinion about what kind of life one thinks is most worth living. Our only choice, then, is whether to think about these issues explicitly and form our opinions in a careful way, or to do so haphazardly.