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May 25, 2007

Congratulations to David!

Posted by John Baez


David Corfield just got a permanent job in the Philosophy Department of the University of Kent at Canterbury!

Ever since I read David Corfield’s book Towards a Philosophy of Real Mathematics back around 2003, I’ve been impressed by his willingness and ability to pose new questions in the philosophy of mathematics… and shocked by how much trouble he had finding a permanent job.

Could it be because his book challenged the “foundationalist filter” through which most philosophers see the practice of mathematics? Too many of them are stuck somewhere back around Gödel’s theorem, knowing little of what’s happened in math since the 1930s. David pointed this out quite clearly:

[…] Straight away, from simple inductive considerations, it should strike us as implausible that mathematicians dealing with number, function and space have produced nothing of philosophical significance in the past seventy years in view of their record over the previous three centuries. Implausible, that is, unless by some extraordinary event in the history of philosophy a way had been found to filter, so to speak, the findings of mathematicians working in core areas, so that even the transformations brought about by the development of category theory, which surfaced explicitly in 1940s algebraic topology, or the rise of non-commutative geometry over the past seventy years, are not deemed to merit philosophical attention.

In a later paper, he continues:

When I first started to read the mainstream English-language philosophy of mathematics literature, I was immediately struck by its almost complete lack of interest in what I considered to be the treasure house of mathematics. The philosophers I read seemed to think the best way to get a handle on mathematics was to find some or other formal calculus which could be said to represent it in its totality. Set theory or second-order logic appeared to be just the thing for the job. To me this was like badly packing some pieces of jewellery in a huge cardboard box, then speaking indiscriminately of the whole of the space enclosed within the box as though it were the precious contents. It seemed to me that were we to pose the right questions, we would be required to look at the finer filigree. Or to put it the other way around, if we find we are not required to look at the details of mathematical thinking, we are not posing the right questions.

I can easily imagine passages like this upsetting scholars who think only the “foundations” of mathematics are philosophically interesting — where “foundations” are defined in an archaic way that ignores new developments. But, isn’t it the duty of philosophers to raise tough and sometimes embarrassing issues like this, and open new realms for questioning?

Looking for jobs is psychologically tough, especially as the search drags on and the file of rejection letters builds up. It’s easy for people to lose self-confidence and collapse, or become bitter. Not David: while searching for a permanent position, he coauthored a book on psychosomatic aspects of health and worked at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics on the philosophy of statistical learning theory! And in his spare time, he’s been discussing philosophy and cutting-edge math and physics with the visitors to this café.

Why wouldn’t every philosophy department want to hire such an inventive mind? Some tenured academics coast by on far less, cranking out article after article on the same narrow theme.

So, I was really becoming quite gloomy…

… but now that cloud of gloom has lifted!

Congratulations, David!

Posted at May 25, 2007 7:44 PM UTC

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19 Comments & 0 Trackbacks

Re: Congratulations to David!

Congratulations! :)


Posted by: Christine Dantas on May 26, 2007 1:30 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Congratulations to David!

Someone got a job espousing the crackpot idea that philosophy of mathematics has anything at all to do with mathematics? Weird. Eerie.

Good job, tho’.

Posted by: John Armstrong on May 26, 2007 2:08 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Congratulations to David!

Pretty damn smart decision the U of K at C made in this case. Or, perhaps it was a no-brainer? :-)

Congratulations, David!!

Posted by: Todd Trimble on May 26, 2007 2:16 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Congratulations to David!

Woo-hoo! Drinks are on David!

Posted by: Walt on May 26, 2007 2:25 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Congratulations to David!

I’m really pleased, congratulations! I especially enjoyed the “two cultures” kind of threads that you started over here.

(And don’t bother with the comment of John Armstrong – but I guess you’re used to that kind of thing, sigh…)

Posted by: thomas1111 on May 26, 2007 9:43 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Congratulations to David!

Sorry, thomas, the XML checker here removes <sarcasm> tags.

Posted by: John Armstrong on May 26, 2007 10:09 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Congratulations to David!

David, I’m really happy for you - and a little bit more optimistic about the way the world is. Congratulations!

In December I went to the maths department at Canterbury to give a talk, and was struck by how friendly the people there were. They also seemed to have wide interests - that is, they were interested to talk about areas of mathematics not directly related to their own core area - which must surely be a good thing for you.


Posted by: Tom Leinster on May 26, 2007 11:12 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Congratulations to David!

Congrats to you, David.

Here’s to a successful and fun-filled future for you!

Posted by: Tim Silverman on May 26, 2007 2:26 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Congratulations to David!

Go, David!

I’d like to comment on what John said about his impression (which I share) that the philosophy of mathematics/physics is somehow terribly hidebound. I happen to think that philosophers are doing society a disservice by largely ignoring “nontraditional” philosophical challenges posed by other areas of mathematics, not even new areas in many cases. For example, there is no Wikipedia article on “philosophy of statistics”, therefore no such subject exists :-/ Which seems very odd when you consider the interminable wrangling over the meaning of “frequency”. If it were really true that every philosopher loves to spread peace and light around a really intense catfight, I should think they’d be all over that one!

When you acquire a Ph.D. student, I hope you will tell him or her to start by reading the IEEE Transactions on Information Theory, looking for thorny philosophical issues which are causing confusion (or being neglected). IMHO, we don’t need another philosopher writing a thesis on “the hole problem”. I’d like to read a solid thesis on the philosophy of randomness!

Posted by: Chris Hillman on May 27, 2007 4:56 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Congratulations to David!

Chris, do you make a distinction between ‘philosophy of statistics’ and philosophy of probability? There’s plenty of work on the different interpretations of probability theory: frequency, propensity, subjective degree of belief, objective strength of support between proposition and background knowledge, etc. My PhD supervisor Donald Gillies wrote an introductory textbook on the subject, mentioned in the bibliography of the Wikipedia article.

But, as I’m sure we agree, it’s generally a good idea to look at practitioners’ disagreements to find out where philosophy could profitably try to shine a light. So your suggestion of a particular journal looks interesting.

Posted by: David Corfield on May 27, 2007 9:37 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Congratulations to David!

Congratulations on your new post. With reference to your previous job, although I haven’t worked in theoretical statistical learning - being stuck more in the practical learning area - it’s still “doing something with mathematics” rather than just “contemplating mathematics”, so that it’ll be interesting to see if you have a different perspective to philosophers of mathematics who’ve essentially only ever been philosophers :-) . And I personally think it’s not disagreements but the topics where no-one says anything that’re important. (One typical area no-one seems to talk about is that evaluating and understanding modelling wrt asymptotic limits is crazy because real systems never operate in this realm. A philosophy of modelling based purely on finite data would be very interesting.)

Posted by: dave tweed on May 27, 2007 5:34 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Congratulations to David!

Statistical learning theory’s take on modelling based on finite data is called transduction. Instead of generating a rule to be used on any future data, here you know which finite data you want to model.

Posted by: David Corfield on May 27, 2007 7:38 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Congratulations to David!

Thank you everyone for your kind comments. And special thanks to John Baez. You may imagine that at a number of points in the 12 years since I received my PhD I came close to giving up. But there’s always been someone there to encourage me, and John has often been that person. It must be around 10 years ago that I nervously posed a question by e-mail to him. I’ve enjoyed every moment of our discussions since, and now with a wider circle of people here at the Café.

I’m not sure yet what I’ll be teaching in Kent, perhaps philosophy of science. Obviously I’ll also want to teach philosophy of mathematics. I’ve long thought that a ‘What mathematics has been for philosophy’ kind of course would work. It is striking how significant the relation has been. To name just a few: Plato, Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, Kant, Frege, Husserl, Russell, Wittgenstein. Many philosophy students enter university with a humanities background, and, in particular, will have given up mathematics at 16. I’ll have to see whether I can raise any interest in category theory.

I’m also looking forward to linking up with my old friend Jon Williamson again. We’re looking to set up a Centre for Reasoning to connect our interests with those of other departments. We’re hoping to attract some good postgraduates.

Posted by: David Corfield on May 27, 2007 9:21 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Congratulations to David!

I’m very happy for you, David, and very pleased to see that you did get a position at last after all.

David Green was so annoyed by your lack of employment that after your visit to Jena, he set me on a day or two of web research for funding opportunities to get you a guest professorship here, if nothing else then in order for you to get paid from someone at all to do the things you do.

Glad to see that it wasn’t needed in the end.

Posted by: Mikael Johansson on May 27, 2007 9:42 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Congratulations to David!

Really happy to hear that! Should have happened already some time ago I guess, but it’s all a bit of a random game it seems, the one of getting academic positions. It seems that Britain is slowly but steadily becoming a category theory paradise, …

Posted by: bob on May 27, 2007 1:21 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Congratulations to David!

As ivanov-petrov told in his livejournal:

“Our time rejects correct answers; it still stands correct questions, but does not understand or ignore them.”

But I hope it is not quite right.


Posted by: osman on May 27, 2007 1:39 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Phil. of Sci. – bias beaten; Re: Congratulations to David!

Well deserved congratulations!

“…what I’ll be teaching in Kent, perhaps philosophy of science.”

When I was an undergrad at Caltech, a slightly older friend of mine (Peter Szolovits) applied from Caltech to Harvard for a teaching/research position in Philosophy of Science. They liked him (grades, publications) but said in the interview: “We’ve never hired anyone into our Philosophy of Science who is actually a scientist.”

He went to a professorship at MIT instead.

So, I’m strongly encouraged that someone who knows Mathematics can be involved at this level in Philosophy of Science. This could make a big difference to many people!

Please keep us posted.

Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post on May 27, 2007 6:30 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Congratulations to David!

Congratulations, David! I really enjoyed your book Towards a Philosophy of Real Mathematics and found it a refreshing work in philosophy of mathematics.

Posted by: Koen Vervloesem on May 28, 2007 12:26 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Congratulations to David!

Congratulations David!

I can well imagine the relief you feel.

Posted by: urs on May 28, 2007 4:27 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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