Aspiring Philosophers at Rutgers Meet a Superstar in the Field
Kit Fine discusses professional and intellectual success with students
Philosophy majors at Rutgers are accustomed to reading and absorbing the works of the leading thinkers in their field.
They recently had the chance to sit down and chat with one of them.
Kit Fine—a New York University professor and one of the world’s foremost authorities on metaphysics, logic, and the philosophy of language and mathematics—joined undergraduates for a 90-minute lunchtime discussion.
Sitting at one end of a long conference table, and speaking in an amiable British accent, Fine led an informal, wide-ranging conversation, regaling students with stories of how he got his start in philosophy, offering them advice on how to pursue their goals, and demonstrating a disarming humility about his work.
“There is professional success and there is intellectual success,” Fine told students. “I still feel I have not achieved intellectual success. I still feel the need to realize the full philosophical intellectual potential that I hope is there.”
The greatest value you can get from studying philosophy is learning how to think for yourself
Students said they were thrilled by the experience, even though they’re used to having philosophy professors who are recognized as leaders in the field. The Department of Philosophy, in the School of Arts and Sciences, is routinely ranked among the top three departments in the English-speaking world.
“We’re certainly blessed in this department with our share of seminal scholars,” said Max Duboff, a sophomore majoring in philosophy and classics “But this was very exciting. I told a friend of mine who’s not from philosophy that Kit Fine was coming to campus, and he said, ‘oh my God, I love Kit Fine.'”
Fine was visiting campus as part of an annual lecture and book series that’s bringing some of world’s greatest philosophers to Rutgers University–New Brunswick to present public lectures, hold workshops with faculty and graduate students, and meet with undergraduates.
The series—organized by philosophy department Chair Larry Temkin in conjunction with Oxford University Press—began last November, with Fine as the inaugural lecturer. Fine’s principal lecture on “The Problem of Vagueness” drew a broad audience of scholars and students from the Rutgers community and beyond and was followed by two additional lectures.
But his appearance at the philosophy department’s offices on the fifth floor of the Gateway Building offered undergraduates an opportunity to ask questions about their field and their future in an informal setting.
Students asked Fine a range of questions, some of which focused on what they should study and read to get the best overall background, and find their own specialty.
Fine encouraged them to explore the field and make up their own mind. He stressed the importance of reading major figures like Aristotle, Plato, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant—but he also said personal motivation and inspiration are key.
“If you feel like you have to do it, you’ll likely not do it well, so I think it’s helpful to follow your own instincts,” Fine said. “If you have a particular interest in one area of philosophy, just go with it.”
Fine said his passion for philosophy developed from an early interest in mathematics.
“I discovered this book in the library called Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, by Bertrand Russell, which explained these notions, and that really got me going,” he said. “I actually was one of those who specialize early on. It was only later that I became more general.”
Fine stressed that even with all the concerns over careers and specialties, it’s important not to lose sight of the big picture.
“The greatest value you can get from studying philosophy is learning how to think for yourself,” he said.
Students said they were thrilled, encouraged, and inspired by the visit.
“I was impressed by the independent way he developed and built his own career,” said senior Claire Nguyen, a philosophy major who is minoring in classics and women's and gender studies. “He didn’t follow a prescribed path. He pursued what interested him.”
Jonathan Finnerty, a senior double majoring in philosophy and classics, said he loved the eloquent way Fine expressed the central values of philosophy.
“It’s the intellectual integrity, the intellectual honesty,” he said. “That is what brings me to philosophy, the search for truth.”