Marie Curie fellowship holder believes Estonia could have a research centre for ancient philosophy
UT Research Fellow in History of Philosophy Toomas Lott received the Marie Curie fellowship that takes him to New York University to study the treatment of intellectual authority in ancient philosophy. Lott decided to go to New York University, as its Department of Philosophy is considered one of the strongest in the world and it is currently developing a research centre for ancient philosophy. Lott believes that the University of Tartu could also have such a centre.
Lott’s wider field of research is ancient philosophy, more specifically Plato’s and Socrates’ theory of knowledge. Thanks to the Marie Curie fellowship, he will study the treatment of intellectual authority in the antiquity. People grant intellectual authority to a person they consider more reliable than themselves in a particular field, if they form their own beliefs on the basis of someone else’s.
Most typical intellectual authorities are experts. “If a doctor tells me that a procedure is necessary, then on the basis of that I will also start to believe that this procedure is necessary. That kind of intellectual trust is inevitable, as nobody can know everything,” illustrated Lott.
However, according to Lott, many philosophers have claimed that at least in moral questions, each person should make up his own mind and be intellectually autonomous, have an answer to the question “how should I live my life?”. In his project, Lott tries to show that for Socrates and Plato, the question is not about how to avoid relying on moral authority, but rather about how to recognise legitimate intellectual authority.
The philosophical problem is that it is difficult for non-experts to recognise experts, as non‑experts are not able to assess the truthfulness of the experts’ statements – this can only be done by other experts of the same field. Non-experts must rely on the experts’ reputation or the efficiency of their practice, for instance. But what happens if potential experts disagree? Or if we do not have any means to assess the efficiency of the art of the experts? This bundle of questions has a rather prominent place in modern epistemology and Socrates and Plato were the first to tackle these problems, proposing interesting solutions to them.
Lott will in engage in the project more closely at New York University, which is planning to open a research centre for ancient philosophy and has lately attracted a number of top-level specialists in ancient philosophy. Next semester, New York University will open a doctoral study programme focussing on ancient philosophy.
“In addition to actual research work, staying at New York University will give me an opportunity to learn how a research centre for ancient philosophy is established. I believe the University of Tartu could also have something similar in the future, especially considering that in fact there are already many people with UT background who deal with ancient philosophy in various places around the world,“ said Lott, and added: “It would be nice to continue the tradition that has been rather strong at the University of Tartu in the past.”
Lott believes that modern-level research of ancient philosophy could also bring many benefits outside the narrow academic context. Although the number of Estonian translations of ancient Greek texts is slowly increasing, there is actually also a dire need for good philosophical commentaries of these texts.
“The problem is that ancient texts often seem simple and accessible at first, but are in fact philosophically very demanding. On the other hand, some texts may seem distant and incomprehensible and not communicate to the modern reader. To achieve that Greek way of thinking really reaches the Estonian cultural space, it needs philosophical intermediation that would allow seeing its philosophically meaningful ways of interpretation.”
Individual Fellowships of Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions support the mobility of researchers within and beyond Europe and help to attract the best foreign researchers to work in the European Union.
Additional information: Toomas Lott, UT Research Fellow in History of Philosophy, email: toomas.lott [ät] ut.ee.