Millikan Has Built Career of International
Distinction as Philosopher
niversity philosophy professor Ruth Millikan headed out this fall to give an extensive European lecture series. In the spring, she'll head back to Europe to receive a top honor from the French government and to lecture in Paris.
It's a familiar scene for Millikan, who has established herself as an international lecturer in the field to which she was first introduced as a student in the 1950s.
Crowning a Career
She's given the Romanell Lecture, one of only two commissioned annually by the American Philosophical Association, and also the Gareth Evans Memorial lecture at Oxford University.
What's more, international conferences have been held about her work.
But the lecture circuit is only one aspect of her ongoing achievements.
Nearly a dozen of her writings have been anthologized, in total, nearly two dozen times.
Earlier this year, the University's Board of Trustees bestowed its Distinguished Professor award on Millikan. The lifetime award is the University's highest honor for faculty, given to just five professors a year.
For Millikan, the award crowns a long list of University recognition that includes awards for excellence in research from the Chancellor, the AAUP, and the Alumni Association, as well as the Alumni Association's Distinguished Professor award.
Not bad, she might offer, for someone whose career ladder began, as she puts it, "as a faculty housewife."
"What might interest women in particular is that I came through the ranks, beginning as an adjunct lecturer for six years, a position many well qualified wives have been forced into and most have never been lucky enough to get out of," says Millikan.
She spent 12 years raising four children and only then returned to academia, a journey she hopes might inspire "other housewives" on their career paths.
International Lecture Circuit
In Paris on June 3, Millikan will receive the Jean Nicod Prize from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique of France, and in the weeks afterwards will present the five Jean Nicod Lectures for 2002.
The Nicod Lecture series, established in 1995 by the French government, is presented annually by an individual with an internationa l reputation in the fields of psychology, philosophy, cognitive science, or related subjects.
This fall's trip, which began Oct. 12, brings Millikan to Austria and the Konrad Lorenz Institute, where she'll be a contributor to an international workshop on "Evolution of Communication Systems: A Comparative Approach." Her presentation will discuss fundamental differences between the kinds of signs that people are able to interpret and those understood by other animals.
Further circuit stops include Germany, where she'll contribute to a special lecture series on "Mind and Society as Natural Phenomena" at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University. She will also give a lecture and a seminar at Frankfurt University on her approach to mental representation, that is, on how thoughts and perceptions can be understood as parts of the natural world and what their relations are to what they're about.
In England, she'll give a talk at the University of Sussex on natural signs, and then consult with Nicholas Shea of Oxford University, who is writing a book on, well, "On Millikan". The book, commissioned by Wadsworth Publishers, will be published in 2002.
Then, it's on to the University of Belfast for yet another lecture.
The Philosophy Bug
For Millikan that happened as an undergraduate student at Oberlin College when her philosophy professor Paul Schmidt introduced her to this intellectual discipline.
"He taught exclusively by the Socratic method and made us all feel that if we thought hard enough for a day or two, we might answer a question that had been hanging around unanswered for 2,500 years," she recalls.
In 1962, Millikan was hired by UConn as a philosophy instructor. She earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale in 1969. Three years later, she married Donald Shankweiler, a professor of psychology at UConn, and her career ladder began again. She worked her way up from adjunct lecturer in philosophy and women's studies in the late 1970s to full professor - part-time and not tenure track - in the late 1980s. She was promoted to a tenured, full time position in 1996. She also taught part-time at the University of Michigan from 1993 to 1996.
Millikan credits two philosophers - Daniel Dennett, director of The Center for Cognitive Science at Tufts University, and Charles Morris, then retired from the University of Chicago - as catalysts in moving her career forward while she remained a stay-at-home mom.
"Even though at the time he did not personally know me, Dennett read papers of mine, wrote an introduction to my first book, and has since advertised my work throughout the world," says Millikan.
"Charles Morris, who read my completed dissertation that a friend gave him in 1969, told me I must keep on working in spite of my babies," she says. "He said I had carved out an important lifetime of work."
He surely had a crystal ball.
Millikan's areas of specialty include philosophy of mind and psychology; philosophy of language-pragmatics; philosophy of biology; ontology; and natural epistemology.
Her work is primarily in three fields and from an evolutionary perspective: theoretical biology, theoretical cognitive psychology; and theoretical linguistics.
"My research interests span many topics in the philosophy of biology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and ontology," says Millikan. "The aspects of these fields that interest me are continuous with relevant scientific work and with the philosophy of science."
She has authored four books; written 37 articles, with 10 more scheduled for publication; and has authored as well, nearly a dozen commentaries and reviews. Her latest book Varieties of Meaning will be published by MIT Press in 2003.
"The book is about meaning in the sense in which people mean to do things, parts of biological nature that are meant to do things, and about the meanings of signs, including natural signs, but especially about mental representations, both ours and the animals, and about the intimate relations among all of these," explains Millikan.
For Millikan, philosophy commands special meaning: "Philosophy," she says, "is a subject that no one enters into for any reason but interest."
Claudia G. Chamberlain