Christopher Smeenk entered philosophy using the side door.
“I started off in my undergrad thinking I’d be a physics major,” Smeenk said, noting the subject’s appeal came from a deep interest in the universe.
“I realized a lot of the questions I was thinking about – how we arrive at theories, what these theories say about the world – were the kinds of questions philosophers were asking. For some people outside of philosophy, this (connection) is weird because philosophers are really getting their hands dirty, looking at the scientific theories in a way a lot of people are surprised to discover people in the humanities are doing,” he continued.
Last month, Smeenk became the new Director of Western’s Rotman Institute of Philosophy. He served as the institute’s interim director two years ago, and returned as director in September. He taught philosophy at the University of California (Los Angeles) for four years prior to his arrival at Western in 2007.
By the time Smeenk entered grad school at the University of Pittsburgh, his interest in the intersection of science and philosophy had cemented. The school’s Department of History and Philosophy of Science get credit for nurturing his interest, because of its strong emphasis on, and strength in, “big S” science – something admittedly unusual in his combined field of study.
“I was interested in the historical development of theories – figuring out why we think Einstein was right, how we came up with a theory that says such bizarre things about space and nature. It felt like the kind of questions I was asking, I couldn’t really stand back at a distance. I had to know enough about the theories and how they work, to be able to ask the questions I was asking,” he explained.
A year after his arrival at Western, Smeenk found himself in a similar position. Established in 2008 by the late Joseph Rotman, a former Western Chancellor, the Rotman Institute provides intellectual leadership and training in the investigation of ethical and epistemological issues in contemporary science. Under the institute’s oversight, philosophers, scientists, students and policy-makers around the world are engaged in the discussion about what science is good for, and what is good for science.
“(The institute) supports people doing great work, and it’s trying to set up a research community. There’s a bit of a cultural difference between research in humanities and research in science. Humanists often do independent work; it’s the nature of the field and that’s totally fine. But I think it’s nice to have people talking to each other from different disciplines, and that’s one of the things we’re trying to foster – getting scientists and philosophers to talk to one another,” Smeenk said.
This bridge is precisely what excites him about his new role. He looks forward to not only fostering connections in research, but also in the community.
The Department of Philosophy has been strong forever, Smeenk said, noting he remembers it being a “powerhouse,” particularly in the Philosophy of Science, when he was a grad student, attending conferences here.
“I think if people actually discover what philosophers are working on, they’ll discover they’re tackling a lot of the fundamental questions that are socially important, that you think about in your ordinary life. We’ve got this great institute, and given the concentration of talent, we should be reaching out to the community.”
Smeenk extended his gratitude to Henrik Lagerlund, Chair of Philosophy, for taking on an extra responsibility and stepping in as interim director of the institute, before Smeenk stepped back into the role. Now that he’s back, one thing still weighs heavy on his mind.
“When I was interim director, I worked with Joe Rotman. He was terrific. I don’t know how to express this elegantly, but I do have this feeling, given how much I admired and respected him, I really want to fulfill the vision he inspired us to have,” Smeenk said.
“He was really a terrific leader. It’s surprising how, basically, everyone I know who worked with him closely, felt like they were on his team. I certainly felt like that. When it was first becoming clear that I might be coming back as director, before Joe passed away, I thought this would be an opportunity to work with him again. The first day I was the interim director, he called and we talked for maybe two hours. This year, it was a very clear contrast, and I felt the absence even more strongly.”