Shannon O’Rourke is a fourth year Ph.D. student in the philosophy program at Memorial. After studying as a chemist he changed faculties and completed a BA in Philosophy and German Literature at the University of Alberta in 2011. He moved to Newfoundland in 2012 to pursue a masters of Arts in philosophy. His master’s area of concentration was Immanuel Kant’s anthropological work, specifically his so called fourth question, “What is the human being?” His doctoral work focuses on ecology and politics via Science and Technology Studies (STS) and pragmatism, specifically via the work of Bruno Latour. This winter he begins his Cotutelle in Germany at the University of Augsburg. He will be working with Augsburg University’s Dr. Uwe Voigt and Dr. Jens Soentgen.
How and why did you decide to attend Memorial for your graduate degree?
I began my university studies in chemistry at the University of Alberta. The first year class sizes were huge, some just shy of 500 students. Once I made the transition into philosophy, I grew to appreciate community and class size. When I was thinking of going to grad school I asked the undergraduate advisor. I told her I wanted, an accelerated program, specializing in continental philosophy, with a close-knit community. She suggested Memorial. This is what Memorial provided.
The philosophy community here is very welcoming and well known internationally. Even when I decided I no longer wanted to focus primarily on continental philosophy, I knew that I would get the education and connections needed to foster a career in academia from MUN and the philosophy department. The committee supervising me is diverse and top notch. (Dr. Jay Foster, Dr. Peter Gratton, Dr. Scott Johnston).
What drew you to explore philosophy originally?
I grew up the youngest of five children. I was always inquisitive and annoying my siblings with questions, they even designated a special time when they were forced to answer the barrage. Each would take their respective turn with exasperation. This annoyance to my siblings subsided when I could read and discovered the encyclopedia. I then became the annoyance of my teachers, or passersby. My family had three encyclopedia sets in my house as a kid, then I discovered the World Book CD-ROM, I was hooked. Like most philosophers I was driven, not only by the ‘why’ questions, but the big “why” question—“why something and not nothing?” Sometime in junior high I discovered science and atomic theory. I thought it was beautiful; it is beautiful.
In high school I excelled in the sciences and went on to the University of Alberta. I went there to study chemistry. The first year in the Honours program was restricting, the university didn’t permit many electives, they allowed just one if I remember correctly. Because the university was so big and I knew I would not get the chance to take all the philosophy classes I wanted, I took a third year existentialism class. At the end of this class I suspected that philosophy was my vocation, even if I still had to overcome the bias most people face between pragmatic concerns and calling. I continued in chemistry thinking that it could provide the kinds of answers I was seeking.
It wasn’t until a graduate class in quantum chemistry that I realized how our best scientific representations of the world are, and will always be missing answers to the questions I was seeking. I switched to philosophy the next semester. Two years later I moved to Newfoundland for my Masters. The following year I started my PhD. I understand now, after years of philosophy, what was missing and why this was the case. Now I’m working on understanding and describing how these fundamental limitations play out in politics, science, and philosophy.
What exactly is science and technology studies when looked at through the lens of philosophy?
STS is an emerging interdisciplinary field. I would be remiss to try and pin it down in advance, i.e., to say exactly what it is, what it can be, and what it will be. I think STS is founded on questioning the legitimacy of determinations, e.g., who is qualified to determine or define? How does democracy work in theory and practice? Starting largely after Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions, who showed us how to think of the history of science as more than “anecdote and chronology.”
He argued that accounting for changes in scientific theories might be better accomplished by understanding the underlying intellectual paradigms that institute the ways we think, and thus understand the problems that the sciences attempt to address. In reframing the scientific narrative from one where the sciences provide “Truth”—provide “Facts” understood as unquestionable and unrevisable—to one where the sciences are seen as puzzles, scientists mere puzzle solvers.
Moving forward to STS and social construction. At the height of the science wars in the 80s, questions about the social construction of science were topical. Bruno Latour, the figure I primarily study, was working on the relationship between the sciences and their practices. How is it that scientists go from material evidence, graphs, hypotheses, statistical plots, to “Facts?” In his later career this question becomes, how does politics employ “Facts” to shape discourse. In vulgar summary, STS asks us to look at how science and technology interact and affect society, while simultaneously asking how society interacts and affect the sciences (practices)? How is it that human beings operate under two paradigms simultaneously, i.e., on the one hand operating with a mindset that we can reduce the world to theories (atomic theory for instance) and explain everything in terms of forces at a distance, while simultaneously holding that the world is irreducible to a theory which could encompass the whole.
We are determinists and anti-determinists, simultaneously free and not-free, so how do we navigate life with others given the up and down are in part determined by a community. In a world facing global catastrophe, understanding the influence and feedback of science and politics is a key part of learning to work together. Understanding the play of actors and networks is essential in planning, if only as an initial plan, a means to address the biggest problem human beings have ever faced, our self-made end.
Can you tell us a bit about your current research?
I am currently working at the intersection of philosophy and science in the sub-field Science and Technology Studies (STS). The key figure I study is Bruno Latour. He studied as an anthropologist and earned his PhD working in biblical hermeneutics, oh, and he’s one of the founders of STS. A core questions he keeps asking after is how our practices hook up with the world? What do we do? (think science or religion here for instance) and what do we think or believe we’re doing? Another way to ask this might be to ask “What is Objectivity?”
This desire to understand objectivity features in much, if not all of his work. His method is part Hermeneutical (roughly speaking, interested in interpretation), part anthropological (roughly speaking, interested in description), part philosophical (interested in understanding how we reduce the world but hold simultaneously to its irreducibility). What does this mean for the philosophy of science? It means his approach concurrently tries to describe what’s going on while situating it in an interpretive matrix., i.e., a matrix that explains the reasons we choose one path, one interpretation, over another. Latour wants us the readers, us the co-investigators, to be able to follow him down the rabbit hole, and to realize there is no rabbit hole. There is no ‘Truth’ with a capitol ‘T,’ Science with a capitol ‘S,’ i.e., science equivalent with ‘Truth’ does not exist.
What does exist however, are practices and problems. Things are what they are in relation to one another, “everything can be made the measure of every other thing.” This is important for his later work which focuses on ecology and the relationship between science and religion. My current research focuses on how his earlier work, which is mostly concerned with practices, is taken up in light of two questions: (1) What is the relationship between science and religion? (2) How can we do a political ecology; how can we do political ecology? I think these are pressing questions given a rhetorical atmosphere that purposefully misunderstands the role the sciences play with regard to ‘Facts’ and their relationship with religion. Furthermore, the interplay and relation between politics, science, and religions are especially pertinent with regard to the looming ecological crisises we are grappling to deal with.
A supervisor can be key to the success of any grad student. What does your supervisor Dr. Peter Gratton bring to his/her role as your advisor and mentor?
Peter Gratton graduated from De Paul University under the supervision of Michael Naas. No doubt his background in 20th century French and German thinkers has played a decisive role in my philosophical education. Peter’s educational training might have focused on Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, and others around these thinkers, yet I would be remised if I said Peter was a Heideggarian, a Foucauldian, or a Derridean. Pigeonholing him is difficult because he pushes himself to master, not only his own areas, but the areas of those people he surrounds himself with. His mode of engagement is characteristic of those who push themselves and those around them to be more precise in their thinking and arguing. Peter works on African philosophy, and contributes to journals such as Society and Space, and Derrida Today. I won’t list all his accomplishments, but I will say that his most endearing, and at least for me sometimes frustrating, characteristic is his desire to make himself and those around him more precise in their thinking.
Have you attended any conferences/delivered any papers this year? Can you give details?
In a little more than a year I have attended seven conferences and delivered papers at five of them. In the summer of 2015 I traveled to Ireland to give a paper on C.S. Peirce at the Summer Institute in American Philosophy at University College Dublin. I followed this up with a conference/summer school presentation at Freiburg University, Germany (Memorial Summer School in Philosophy). When I returned from the summer I gave a paper at Memorial’s conference on Expertise organized by Dr. Barb Neis and broadcast in part on CBC Ideas. Later in October 2015 I flew to Montreal to attend the Canadian Society of Continental Philosophy, organized by Memorial’s own philosophy professor Dr. Shannon Hoff. In May I presented at Memorial’s Kant Conference and followed that with a presentation a few days later at the Jesuit University Ignatianum in Krakow, Poland. Then in June I attended the Derrida Today Conference in London, England.
Are you involved in any organizations on-campus or off? If so, can you explain and detail such involvement?
On campus I’m involved in the Humanities and Social Sciences Grad Council and the philosophy departments “Jockey” club. The Grad Council started to form in fall of 2014. Dr. Sean Cadigan organized the first meetings. He was seconded to the associate dean’s position while Dr. Carrie Dyck was working elsewhere. The Grad Council mission can be viewed here (https://www.mun.ca/hss/programs/graduate/graduate_council.php), but a summary would be that the council was spearheaded by Dr. Dyck in an attempt to help coordinate information between graduate students, graduate officers, and the HSS faculty. Another means of representing students, and another means for the faculty to listen to and inform students of ongoing changes, especially within the university. The “Jockey Club” is Memorial’s philosophy department’s own internationally known philosophy club. It is currently held in a darkly light bar, the Peter Easton, full of character and characters. It has been called the “heart of the philosophy department.” Many prominent philosophers have attended and guided discussions at Jockey over the years, e.g., Ian Hacking, Jeff Malpas, Stuart Elden, Francois Dastur among many others.
What do you like most about being a graduate student at Memorial?
Community. This is a feature of life in St. John’s, the university in general, and the philosophy department. I’m lucky to be apart of a department that get along well together. The department provides not only a place to learn philosophy, but a place to do philosophy. It doesn’t hurt that for such a small place, you can go out any day of the week and hear live music, and usually pretty good music.
What do you hope to do after completing your graduate degree?
Ideally I would do a post-doc and then go on to work as a contractual lecturer, or land a tenure track position. I would also be content working within the government to institute needed changes arising from, and informed by, my research in STS.