Philosophy in Europe with Carleton’s Joshua Shepherd

By: Emily Carr

Doctor Joshua Shepherd is one of Carleton’s Philosophy professors currently away on sabbatical this semester (Fall 2022). Back home in Ottawa, you might find Shepherd teaching undergraduate Philosophy courses that synchronize cognitive studies and philosophy (such as PHIL 1301: Mind, World and Knowledge or PHIL 2550: Moral Psychology). Shepherd first discovered his interest in Philosophy through linguistic and metaphysical Philosophy, which brought him to pursue a master’s degree in Philosophy at Colorado State University, focusing in on the philosophy of cognitive science, and ultimately completing a thesis on moral particularism. Following this degree, he continued philosophical studies with his PhD at Florida State University, where he wrote his dissertation on action and consciousness. Since then, he has worked to publish a variety of philosophical papers, as well as two books. While Shepherd is interested in all channels of philosophical thinking, he has established action and consciousness as his particular field of study.

“I don’t have a favorite philosopher, and I don’t really like any superfan approach to philosophy or philosophers. There are many many people doing interesting, sometimes inspiring work, and so I try to learn from as many as I can.” – Shepherd

Shepherd is spending his time on sabbatical in Barcelona, Spain, where he is avoiding the upcoming Ottawa winter and also running a research project called Rethinking Conscious Agency. The goal of this project, which he is currently working on alongside two post-doctorate philosophers, is “to better understand the roles that consciousness plays in enabling sophisticated action control.” (Shepherd) This project researches topics or themes related to agency as a phenomenon, perception and its different natures, and cognitive processes behind action. In other words, Shepherd’s work in the Rethinking Conscious Agency project connects or links philosophy and science through questions about human consciousness and action.

Shepherd’s work in Philosophy is a journey towards understanding “the nature of agency, relationships between different types of agency (for example, epistemic agency, moral agency, or aesthetic agency), and how the many components of agency hang together.” (Shepherd) Shepherd’s most recently published book, The Shape of Agency: Control, Action, Skill, Knowledge (2021), is an accumulation of Shepherd’s ideas that present a perspective on agency, cognitive science, neuroscience, mind, and practical ethics, and connect all of these topics along the way. This book, along with many of his other works, is available on Shepherd’s website (linked below this post).

The project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC). Shepherd explains that in Spain, like most of Europe, studies in Philosophy are considered to convey “less of a distinction between philosophy and nearby sciences” such as linguistics, neuroscience and psychology. Philosophy has a special approach to research and information by bringing to the table a particular ability to synthesize data in the process of building theories. Philosophy can identify holes and uncover “unsolved questions” within information, and sometimes propose unique experiment ideas. (Shepherd) I think the nature of a philosophical perspective is to seek connection amongst ideas that that might not seem to be connected at all. Or, the philosophical position might also propose further problems, disconnections and questions about ideas that are opposite or isolated. Either way, philosophical approaches to research can offer depth and strength, to the process of drawing conclusions, and this is true for all fields of study.

In Europe, Philosophy as a field of study receives more attention and funding in general. In Spain and other European countries, like France and Austria, Philosophy is actually taught in high school or even younger education levels. Since the Age of Enlightenment, Philosophy has carried through most European curriculum by way of tradition. In North American countries like Canada, our curriculum does not give as much accessibility or attention to Philosophical approaches or thinking. This might be because famous philosophers in European history have always been intertwined or related to other realms of studies and social process, like science and politics. Of course, there is a drastic difference in the amount of North American philosophical figures, partially due to the young age and lack of history of North American countries compared to Europe. The histories of countries like Spain carry the frontrunners of Philosophy on a global level, such as José Ortega y Gasset, who have each become historical figures accredited for ideas that not only serve as a foundation for Philosophical study, but also as a foundation for society, even to the present day. Compared to Europe, refrain to incorporate Philosophy into all realms of academia and social life appears to be a modern, North American model of thought. What effect would it have on Canadian students if Philosophical approaches were introduced at lower education levels, that is, before post-secondary (high school or even elementary school)?

Shepherd’s website with access to many of his published works:

https://sites.google.com/site/shepherdphilosophy/

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