About the series: On Main Hall Green With … is an opportunity to connect with faculty on things in and out of the classroom. We’re featuring a different Lawrence faculty member each time — same questions, different answers.
Mark Phelan, associate professor of philosophy and chair of Lawrence University’s Philosophy Department, has spent his career studying the human mind. A member of the faculty since 2011, his teaching has touched on everything from philosophies of the mind to cognitive science to linguistic pragmatics.
In a nod to his work, Phelan was recently selected to participate in the Council of Independent Colleges’ New Currents in Teaching Philosophy Institute, to be held in July in Baltimore, Maryland. It’s a selective invite, with only 33 applicants chosen. In addition, it comes with a supplemental $1,000 grant to support new curricular activities at Lawrence.
Phelan holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and a Master’s degree from the University of Utah. He did his undergraduate study at Ouachita Baptist University.
We caught up with him to talk about interests in and out of the classroom.
In the classroom
Inside info: What’s one thing you want every student coming into your classes to know about you?
While there are certainly facts that I want you to learn in my classes—the contours of philosophical problems, the details of influential theories, and how the debates we investigate have developed—the primary purpose of philosophy courses is to help students develop as thinkers, writers, and compassionate communicators. This is why philosophy courses are so popular with LU students of all majors, and it’s part of the reason why philosophy pairs so well as a double major. The topics you investigate in our courses are fascinating, true, but the skills you develop will help you lead a successful and fulfilling life.
Studying philosophy empowers you to formulate hard questions through critical inquiry surrounding meaning, reasoning, knowledge, and existence.
Getting energized: What work have you done or will you be doing at Lawrence that gets you the most excited?
I get excited talking about philosophical ideas with my students. Right now, I’m teaching two of my absolute favorite classes, Introduction to Cognitive Science and How to Do Things with Words, and it has been so fun to see students getting exposed to and enthused about ideas that are so interesting to me that I built a career out of investigating and thinking about them. I’m also energized by all the cross-disciplinary and cross-divisional collaborations at Lawrence. Philosophy, as a discipline, is interested in reflecting on all modes of inquiry and creativity. For basically any topic, there is a philosophy of that topic. My own research is at the intersection of philosophy, psychology, and linguistics. So, I, like the other members of the Philosophy Department, contribute to several interdisciplinary programs on campus and, thereby, collaborate with faculty and students across the curriculum. I’ve taught at other universities before coming to Lawrence, but, in my experience, this is an especially interdisciplinary place and I love it for that.
Going places: Is there an example of somewhere your career has taken you (either a physical space or something more intellectual, emotional or spiritual) that took you by surprise?
My research and many of my classes investigate how we think about our own minds and the minds of others. This work suggests that what we take to be first-hand knowledge about our own mental lives is, in fact, often illusory in nature. We experience our mental lives as unified and coherent, but we know now that they are realized by numerous underlying cognitive processes that are blind to one another and often inconsistent in their assessments. When we try to answer difficult questions, we often unintentionally and unconsciously substitute easy, related, but distinct questions that introduce bias into our reasoning. We lack direct access to our higher-order mental processes, such as those involved in judgment and problem solving. And it is becoming more and more likely that we don’t even directly introspect our own beliefs and desires; instead, we may infer what we believe, in the same way that we infer the beliefs of others. We are, then, pretty flawed and fallible beings. But I have been coming to realize that there is beauty in this state of individual, epistemic weakness. It means that we can know ourselves fully only by coming to understand people in general, and that we must band together and rely on one another to have the slightest hope of knowing anything at all.
Out of the classroom
This or that: If you weren’t teaching for a living, what would you be doing?
I hope I would be writing, editing, or in some other way still dealing in words. My teaching is linked to my research, and I see writing—or, in any case, a presentation and discussion of ideas that is akin to good writing—as central to both. I also enjoy cooking for others and my kids joke that I should start a restaurant. (Pre-tenure, the option of being a line-cook was a real plan B.)
Right at home: Whether for work, relaxation or reflection, what’s your favorite spot on campus?
There is a trail that starts just below Warch and runs alongside the river. I have enjoyed taking walks down there, in the fall and spring. In the past, it ran all the way through to Green Bay Road and I would sometimes walk home that way, the long way. If you’re willing to ignore some “no trespassing” signs, I think you can still make it all the way through.
One book, one recording, one film: Name one of each that speaks to your soul? Or you would recommend to a friend? Or both?
Book(s): I recently read—well, listened to, I Audible avidly—The Candy House, by Jennifer Egan, the sequel to her 2011, Pulitzer Prize winner, A Visit from the Goon Squad. As soon as I finished the second book, I wanted to go back and reread the first. Together, the works are a series of stories, told from a variety of points of view, about a variety of characters, whose lives weave together to create a unified narrative. Together, the books span a period from the 1960s to now and—in the second book, which is partially speculative fiction—on out into the latter decades of this century. I love how Egan combines points of view, genres, and even modes of presentation. The novels comprise stories in first, second, and third person, presented in straight narrative fashion, epistolary form, as a series of news articles, through the instructions in a secret agent’s handbook, and on and on. Really inventive and engaging stuff by a master talent.
Recording: Hmm…I like a lot of music, but I’ll stay true to my roots and recommend the southern rock masterpiece that is Tom Petty’s Wildflowers. So many of the songs on that album take me back to high school and college. And the eponymous song has a special place in my heart.
Film: The Coen Brothers are my favorite living directors, so I’ll recommend something somewhat obscure by them, their 1991 movie, Barton Fink. It’ll show you the life of the mind.