Is There Method in This Madness?
Undergraduate Eli Chudnoff Tackles Metaphysics
Philosophy is a subject that is rarely taught in high school. If students are exposed to philosophy it is often within the context of a related discipline. "Usually the wedge in is through some sort of literature that you are reading in an English class, for example, that is interrelated to philosophy," Eli Chudnoff, senior philosophy major, explains.
In eleventh grade, Chudnoff read works by Nietzsche and other major thinkers recommended by some of his high school teachers. By the time he started his freshman year at UF, he knew that he wanted to major in philosophy. He has been going strong ever since.
Chudnoff's focus is metaphysics and the philosophy of mind and language, so far as they intersect with metaphysics. He knows his subject is considered obscure by some and is misinterpreted by others. "Whenever you say 'I study metaphysics,' you sound like a freak. It is such a horrible term, isn't it? Spoon bending and levitation, it sounds so mystical and weird."
But Gene Witmer, one of Chudnoff's closest mentors in the philosophy department, explains that the sort of questions that Chudnoff wants to address are very important methodological questions to philosophers. "When Eli talks about metaphysics, he means asking, 'What is the nature of justice, of the mind, of ethics, of self, or of personal identity?' All of those things that come up typically in philosophy. These are hot and controversial questions."
Chudnoff uses investigating the nature of pain as an example to explain the kinds of intellectual processes that he engages in. "It is not as if you have a pain and that a part of the pain is a piece of your brain and therefore it is clearly physical. It is not so clear that pains have physical parts, so there must be some other relationship and it is mysterious what exactly that relationship is. It is a substantive question that philosophers would ask: 'What is the relationship between pain and being in a certain brain state?'"
Chudnoff, who clearly enjoys his work, is motivated by the satisfaction he gets from his dynamic involvement with his subject. "If I were to step back and ask myself why I like doing this, I guess I would say because it is quite engaging. The problems may have a nice logical structure to them or, sometimes, you can figure out the logical structure and impose it on what at first seem like very murky problems. Then you come to understand what was before quite unclear--and that yields its own pleasure."
Chudnoff's academic achievements last year were remarkable. As a junior, he began delving into graduate level courses in philosophy. He won the Robert Long Essay Scholarship from the mathematics department for his paper on Alfred Tarski, a mathematician who cleared the way for the study of semantics. He was the recipient of the philosophy department's Ellen Haring Undergraduate Major Award, which honors outstanding students for their community participation. Also, he was accepted to the University Scholars Program for 2000-2001, which allows him the opportunity to spend the year working with a faculty mentor on scholarly research with the support of a stipend and research funds. Clearly, Chudnoff has come a long way in his short stint as a student of philosophy.
Witmer, who has had Chudnoff in at least one of his courses every semester since Chudnoff's first spring at UF, notes, "He is incredibly quick at picking up important things." Not only that, Chudnoff has diligently developed himself as a scholar and has made remarkable progress. "I think that there was a transition point between his sophomore and junior years," says Witmer, "where before he was gathering information and afterward he had the logical geography mapped out. He did not need someone just to go through the readings with him anymore."
Chudnoff spent the summer working with Witmer, who also serves as his University Scholars Program mentor, on the first phase of his year-long University Scholars Program research project. Chudnoff's project, which grew out of a physicalism seminar that he took last year, is titled, "The Nature of Conceptual Analysis and Its Relevance to Metaphysics."
Witmer explains that the objective of the research is not simply to find answers to difficult philosophical questions. "There is controversy over the answers, of course, but, more importantly, there is controversy over how you are suppose to go about finding the answers. Eli's project is in large part directed to the latter controversy."
Chudnoff describes his summer as a time of "setting up" for the work that is to come in the remainder of the academic year. He and Witmer read and discussed an enormous amount of material in order to have a strong grasp of what questions and issues they want to focus on and how they will develop their investigation this semester. "The summer was great. I love talking to Professor Witmer. We call him--some of the undergraduates that I talk with--'the pedagogical powerhouse.' You should probably quote that too," Chudnoff adds with a smile.
Chudnoff plans to pursue a PhD in philosophy. "I want to continue investigating the general methodological questions and exactly how it is we do philosophy. I am also interested in getting into some specific problems in aesthetics as well as questions about representation and meaning, and the philosophy of language. I have a personal interest in art and art history and I'd like to see what I can do."
Witmer has no hesitations encouraging Chudnoff to continue. Even though the market for philosophers is very tight, he is confident that Chudnoff, with his abilities and his drive, will succeed. Chudnoff himself credits the philosophy department for encouraging him to explore his interests and giving him the tools that he needs to go forward. "As far as the philosophy department goes, I love it. I had a lot of attention from my professors. I couldn't have asked for a better experience."
--Laura H. Griffis