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Dr James Wilk

Associate Lecturer in Philosophy
St Edmund Hall

St Edmund Hall
Oxford OX1 4AR

Research Interests

Philosophy of Mind
Philosophy of Science 

James Wilk

Background & Interests: Education & Research to Date

I came to Oxford as an undergraduate straight from high school in the States, specifically because I was determined to study philosophy through the tutorial system. Although I had come to philosophy from mathematics, via Cantor to Frege and Wittgenstein, most of my research since then has been in metaphysics, the philosophy of mind and action, philosophy of language and philosophy of science, as well as in the philosophy of psychology, philosophy of neuroscience, philosophy of cybernetics, philosophy of psychiatry and philosophy of psychoanalysis. I have also maintained a lifelong interest in the history of science and the history of ideas, particularly in relation to the philosophy of science.

One of the lessons I took from intellectual history, early on, was that most of the big leaps—I was convinced—seem to have occurred historically in the No Man’s Land between philosophy and natural science. Armed with this conviction about “where the action is,” I found my philosophical research invariably led me into study and research within each of the scientific fields with which my conceptual inquiries shared a sufficiently long border, including inter alia neuroscience, cybernetics, complexity theory, semiotics, perceptual control theory, communication theory, psychology and psychoanalysis. I pursued these empirical studies in depth alongside my work in analytic philosophy, and so accordingly, for what it’s worth, my academic credentials have come to include degrees in cybernetics (from Brunel University—in the former Institute of Cybernetics) and in social sciences and neuroscience as well as philosophy (from Oxford), among other things, grounding my philosophical inquiries with training and research on the empirical side of the fence.

For example, in parallel with my academic work in philosophy and in the so-called “hard” (because, of course, the easier) sciences, I have also ended up an experienced clinician in the psychological field. However I undertook my clinical work chiefly for the light it threw on my investigations into the nature and dynamics of mind, and in the consulting room I inquired into psychological change less as a clinical psychologist than as a philosophical psychologist, and less as a mental health professional than as a scientist. My clinical work indeed contributed greatly to my work in both philosophy of mind and in cognitive science, and led to a number of promising advances in complexity theory and cybernetics. The traffic flowed both ways, however, for I experimentally applied my pure research in all these areas to the clinical context, with considerable success and benefit to patients.

Despite appearances, my research interests and pursuits to date have not been wide-ranging in the least. I have merely been obsessively pursuing solutions to a narrow range of fairly intractable, technical, richly interconnected metaphysical problems of passionate interest to me (and perhaps to no one else), that just happen to lie across a plane forming a diagonal slice through a broad range of divers topics, philosophical and scientific. My “career” has not really been one; it has been a meander (viewed from the outside, anyway), as I hunted down my idiosyncratic philosophical prey. Overall (just to offer you the headlines), I have been interested in radically re-conceiving the place of mind in nature, and along the way, the relationship between language and the world. The pure (as opposed to applied) research I have been pursuing in philosophy has all been long-term research culminating in the current research projects described briefly under “Foreground I.”

A lot of my other philosophical research in recent years, however, has been carried out under the auspices of an independent, international scientific think-tank. This work has consisted of applying philosophical analysis, at a high level, to complex issues in the world of affairs, in numerous areas ranging from health care and energy to finance and digital convergence. In this capacity I have served over many years as adviser to a number of leaders in business and government, and although this philosophical research has, gratifyingly, been influential, for obvious reasons it remains confidential.

Foreground I:  Recent and Current Research at Oxford

Since returning to Oxford several years ago to teach and research full time in the Faculty, I have been principally engaged in a number of parallel, book-length projects. 

First, my main research at Oxford has gone into an embarrassingly ambitious metaphysical treatise “in the grand (i.e. 18th-Century) manner,” which I expect to complete within another year or two, propounding a novel, alternative philosophical cosmology.  Built from the ground up (beginning with an alternative semantics), it (rightly or wrongly) turns on its head a gamut of 18th-Century metaphysical presuppositions that remain largely unquestioned in contemporary philosophy (except, notably, by some philosophers more-or-less hostile to this kind of systematic metaphysical enterprise in the first place).  For the moment let me just say that it is radically empiricist, pluralist and non-reductionist, and seeks dramatically to extend the reach of science while shedding it of some of its unwarranted pretensions.  It is entirely heretical, but sufficiently orthodox in approach to be recognizably so. 

Second, I have also been working on a deliberately provocative, somewhat radical introduction to (post-Wittgensteinian) metaphysics, with a focus on the nature of action, aimed both at first-year philosophy undergraduates and at academics in other disciplines (particularly in the social sciences and in cognitive science).  Although this book is now complete, it is undergoing extensive rewriting (no less tedious for being patently necessary) in response to feedback not only from my colleagues but also from sample members of its intended audience.  Above all, I want it to be the sort of book I wish I had read just before coming up to Oxford as a Fresher.

Third, I have been working on a monograph (five of eight chapters so far completed) putting forward my own (neo-Baconian/Vichian) verum factum approach to the philosophy of science, focusing particularly on the implications of—and for—some of the newer sciences.

And finally, I have embarked on a monograph offering a synoptic (if somewhat idiosyncratic) take on characterizing Freud’s enduring contribution to philosophy.

Foreground II:  Teaching 

I have mainly taught, and continue to teach, various combinations of metaphysics, epistemology, philosophical logic, philosophy of language, philosophy of science, philosophy of psychology, philosophy of neuroscience, ethics, meta-ethics, philosophy of action, philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of Wittgenstein, as well as a few odd things like clinical epistemology and various scientific and clinical subjects.

Here at Oxford, for the past several years, I have been regularly providing tutorial teaching for the following papers (listed in order of preference, though supplied in practice according to actual demand):  (118) the Later Philosophy of Wittgenstein, (102) Knowledge and Reality, (104) the Philosophy of Mind and Action, (108) Logic and Language, (105) the Philosophy of Science, Psychology and Neuroscience, and (103) Ethics; though there are a few other papers I am thinking about adding to my teaching portfolio, in response to shifting trends in demand.


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