1990

Contemporary Philosophers Earn National Recognition


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UW philosophy professors Robert Coburn and Laurence BonJour have distinguished themselves as leading figures in the field of contemporary philosophy. Coburn's book, The Strangeness of the Ordinary,footnote 1 which explores issues in modern metaphysics, was selected by Choice, the organ of the American Library Association, for its Outstanding Academic Book List of 1990. BonJour's book, The Structure of Empirical Knowledge,footnote 2 which treats a major controversy in epistemology--the study of knowledge--has established BonJour as a premier figure nationally in that field of inquiry.

"Metaphysics," writes Coburn, "is the discipline that is concerned with a variety of questions and problems that arise when one reflects upon certain notions that pervade everyday thought and discourse--notions such as time, space, object, property, necessity, possibility, existence, fact, God, consciousness, causality, event, truth, proposition, and value."

"[O]ne can hardly scratch the surface of Western intellectual history without coming upon it in one form or another," says Coburn. He characterizes metaphysics in the terms that Alfred North Whitehead once used to describe mathematics: like Ophelia, it is "very charming," "a little mad," but "quite essential to the play." footnote 3

Coburn's book gives an overview of some of the central topics in metaphysics, targeting an audience of advanced undergraduate and graduate students as well as professionals. The author has selected issues such as freedom, time, theology, and truth, among others, that have "deep roots in the metaphysical tradition" and that are at the center of some of the best current work in the field.

BonJour's book, on the other hand, focuses on one specific philosophical controversy. "Most of the work in epistemology in the last 25 years or so has centered on the debate between foundationalist views, which hold that knowledge rests on a foundation of beliefs that are justified independently of any other beliefs or cognitive states, and coherentism, the view that knowledge derives from the mutual support of a whole system of beliefs, none of which has foundational status," explains BonJour.

Most philosophers working in this field would agree that there are two basic presentations of coherentism. One is Keith Lehrer's view as described in his books Knowledge (1975) and Theory of Knowledge (1991); the other is BonJour's view as presented in The Structure of Empirical Knowledge.

A review in the American Library Association's Choice calls BonJour's book "a valuable work that will repay close examination by anyone concerned with what may well be the single most important problem in the theory of knowledge." The book has been widely discussed in philosophy circles--sometimes whole chapters devoted to it in major epistemological works. It also has been widely used as a textbook for advanced undergraduate and graduate courses, and continues to be used more than ten years after publication--a long "shelf life" by philosophy standards.


  1. The Strangeness of the Ordinary: Problems and Issues in Contemporary Metaphysics, Robert C. Coburn, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Savage, MD, 1990.
  2. The Structure of Empirical Knowledge, Laurence BonJour, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1985.
  3. Science and the Modern World, Alfred North Whitehead, Mentor Books, New York, 1948, p. 26.

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