UTSC lecturer Jonathan Rick’s areas of specialization include moral, social, and political philosophy, and the history of these areas (particularly from the 18th century onward).
How did you get interested in Philosophy?
At my undergraduate university, every second-year student was required to take a course on the history of Western Philosophy – focused on moral, political, and religious thought; it was effectively a philosophical ‘Great Books’ course. This was my first exposure to philosophical writing and thinking – the first time I’d encountered anyone so directly asking questions like, ‘What makes up a good life,’ ‘What makes something right or wrong,’ or ‘How should we live together.’ I was really inspired. I wanted to know the answers to those questions, and here were some texts purporting to provide them. It didn’t take very long to realize that definitive answers would not be as easy to come by as I’d initially hoped or expected. To my own surprise, this wasn’t entirely disappointing. Asking these questions, reflecting on responses, and then asking them again – this is what really captivated me then, and what continues to do so now.
What are you working on right now?
At this very moment, I’m working on a paper that explores continuities in the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Adam Smith concerning moral esteem, moral standing, and moral judgment. And, I’m sketching some ideas about a paper examining the differences between reasons for love and reasons of love.
Who is your favorite ‘historical’ philosopher?
I could probably answer this question ten different times, with ten different answers. For now, I’ll say Adam Smith. While he’s better known as an economist than as a philosopher, he was just as much the latter as the former. Smith wrote an all-too-under-read work in moral philosophy titled, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, which was the primary subject of my doctoral dissertation. It’s a beautiful work of moral psychology, full of prescient ideas about sympathy, moral imagination, and the conscience.
Of the philosophy teachers you found especially influential, what was something distinctive you learned from one of them?
There are so many things that I learned from my philosophical mentors, but here’s one very important lesson that I often share with my own students: Writing is itself a way or mode of thinking. The act of composition is essential to thinking through arguments and ideas. It’s very important to start writing right away. Don’t think that you shouldn’t put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, more likely!) until you have all of your thoughts in place. It’s often by arranging them on the page that you’re able to arrange them in your head.
What do you try to bring to your undergraduate students in the classroom?
Quite a lot of my research in moral philosophy deals with the importance of empathy, and the endeavor to understand how others see things from their own perspectives. Put into practice, empathy is something that I strive to foreground in my teaching. I know how hard philosophical writing can be. The acknowledgment of just how impenetrable some of these texts can initially seem to first time readers is always in my mind. In at least this way, philosophy is like a language: it gets a bit easier to understand the more you practice it. And, I have a few more years of fluency than my students. Recognizing the difficulty of first philosophical encounters, I hope to bring my students some clarity and, with it, the reassurance that they really can get this stuff!