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Breaking new ground in philosophy
sometimes a lonely road
October 19, 1998

Philosophy professor Ruth Millikan stares appreciatively at a photocopy of a bold black and white print by M.C. Escher. Tacked up on one of her office walls, the geometric print shows amorphous shapes morphing into amphibians and then into birds.

Spotlight on Research

"That's evolution," says Millikan, nodding at the Escher. The print was to have graced the cover of her second book but copyright problems prevented its use.

Nonetheless, the image holds special meaning for Millikan, whose internationally recognized research explores the implications of evolutionary theory on human thought and language.

Her pioneering work over the past two decades has created a new way of thinking about the philosophy of language, biology and psychology, say her admirers. She has also upset some applecarts along the way.

Millikan, one of this year's Chancellor's Research Excellence Fellows, takes it all in stride. "The best tradition in philosophy is one in which you respect a lot of positions that aren't your own and which you feel obligated to teach students," she says.

That's the way her Yale philosophy professors taught when she was a graduate student in the 1960s. And it's how Millikan, who joined the UConn faculty in 1977 and was promoted to full professor in 1988, teaches today.

Her students (she has given only graduate-level courses since becoming a full-time tenured professor in 1996) give her high marks in the classroom and as a mentor.

"We can't understand human cognition without looking at the function of thought in the world."

Ruth Millikan
Professor of Philosophy

"She's taught me to grow as a philosopher," says Keya Maitra, a fifth-year doctoral student in philosophy who came from India to study with Millikan.

It was Maitra's interest in the philosophy of language that brought Millikan's first book Language, Thought and Other Biological Categories (MIT, 1984) to her attention. "She ties together the way we use language with the evolutionary process," says Maitra.

And that Millikan does, although she has not been completely alone in tying together evolutionary theory and cognition.

About 18 years ago other philosophers made a connection between natural selection and the cognitive systems of simple thinkers, like frogs.

Millikan, however, saw how to extend that biological connection to human thought and cognition. Among the questions she argued were: "What does human cognition need to function properly? What are the ways to help account for its survival."

Her arguments railed against a classic and widespread idea in philosophy formulated by the 18th century French thinker Rene Descartes: that what we know is inside of our head.

Millikan said, "No. We can't understand human cognition without looking at the function of thought in the world."

The basic underpinning of her ideas is the notion of proper function.

This notion is easier to understand if one thinks of different parts of the human body and their proper functions. The heart, for example, pumps blood through the circulatory system. Kidneys filter the blood. These tasks have served a function over time. Thus, through the process of natural selection they have survived in humans.

Words and their meaning, according to Millikan, also have a proper function. Language devices, such as words and syntactic forms, are like the human heart in that they have survived because they have provided certain functions to humans.

But for that to happen, there must be something a language device does that is of interest to the speaker and, in turn, to the response of the hearer.

Consider, for example, the use of the imperative in language. What use of this language device evolved with benefits for both the speaker and hearer? Millikan asks.

"Oddly enough, compliance," she explains. People are always asking directions from others, according to Millikan. Noncompliance with an order might result in sanctions. "More often than not," she says, "the hearer wants to do what the speaker asks."

Her work is of interest to laboratory scientists as well as to contributors to philosophical journals. Millikan wants to know what the brain is managing to do when it makes a connection between things or concepts. "Brain scientists think this suggests interesting directions in experimental research," says Crawford L. Elder, head of the philosophy department.

Millikan developed her core theory while working on her Yale dissertation. She continued to push boundaries with her second book White Queen Psychology and Other Essays for Alice (MIT, 1993). A third book is forthcoming. She's authored numerous articles as well, and is a sought-after guest speaker. Two recent international conferences have been devoted to her research.

Balancing work with family life has never been simple for Millikan.

Early in her career she left the profession to raise a family. "I was merely a housewife," she says.

But while she may not have held a paying job during that time, she never stopped mapping out her thoughts. She wrote her first book in the corner of her living room late at night after her two young daughters were asleep.

Her mid-career years as an academic were often peripatetic. She recalls feeling isolated professionally during many of them. "Because I was not properly in a philosophy department I did my work in a lonely way," she says, "working out my ideas by myself."

Millikan second marriage is to UConn psychology professor Donald P. Shankweiler. Not only did she gain a stand partner for string quartets (she plays violin, he viola) and two step-daughters, but also someone who shares her intellectual pursuits.

Still, family life felt the strain from three years of shuttling (1993 to 1996) between a tenured part-time post at the University of Michigan, and her non-tenured part-time post at UConn. Then UConn offered her a full-time tenured position, in recognition of her international reputation. "It was either get her here full time or lose her," says Elder.

Her choice, says Millikan, was.

from the heart: "There was never any question I wouldn't stay at UConn."

Molly Colie