2014 Balzan Prize for Epistemology and Philosophy of Mind
Acceptance Speech – Rome, 20.11.2014
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you for the honour you have bestowed upon me. It is a special pleasure to share this Prize with Professors Sullivan, Tilman, and Torelli, and to be lauded alongside the Association Vivre en Famille.
I have been awarded this Prize for my contributions to epistemology and the philosophy of mind. Those of you who know my work might be surprised that it falls into these categories. Epistemologists in the analytic tradition in which I was trained have tended to focus on knowledge as a form of justified, true belief. Philosophers of mind concern themselves with how the brain relates to the kinds of things we are undertaking right now: expressing thanks, understanding one another’s words. I have written very little on these topics.
Instead, I have engaged in a very different kind of investigation of knowledge and the mind. I have found it more fruitful to examine, not knowledge in the abstract, but the concrete practices that embody our most successful forms of knowing, namely mathematics (of the kind exemplified by Professor Sullivan’s work) or the natural sciences (of the kind exemplified by Professor Tilman’s). How have we developed the styles of reasoning that allow us to know things in those distinctive ways?
In that, like Professor Torelli, I have turned to history. I have found it particularly useful to pay close attention to the particular case – the statistical tables that emerged in the 19th-century, the various medical diagnoses that psychiatrists used to understand their patients, and so on – because our contemporary concepts bear traces of their histories. Indeed, our minds are in that sense historical organs.
I first realized how to use historical studies for philosophical understanding during a period when I was teaching in Uganda, at the University of Makere in the late 1960s. Thus I am particularly pleased to be honoured alongside the Association Vivre en Famille, whose important work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, just west of Uganda, and elsewhere in Africa, has a much more direct impact on those it helps than anything my contributions can hope to take credit for.
Eugenio and Lina Balzan, with their history of exile, recognized the power of science and culture in promoting the cause of humanity. It is humbling to think that the words I have written over the past 50 years might have this effect.