A leading graduate school in the social sciences and humanities, Central European University (CEU) has recently announced that in September 2020 it will be launching two new bachelor’s programs at its Vienna campus: Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) and Culture, Politics, and Society (CPS). We have caught up with Professor Tim Crane, head of the PPE program and a renowned philosopher of our time, to discuss CEU’s new undergraduate offering and the relevance of philosophy to modern life.
What motivated you to pursue an academic career in philosophy?
I found studying philosophy both obsessively fascinating and utterly confusing when I was a student. But I got huge satisfaction from the sense that I could make progress in understanding these difficult ideas. The more I worked, the clearer things became, and in the end, I became addicted. The idea that you might have a job which involved reading and writing about ideas, and explaining them to others, seemed to me nothing short of miraculous! So, I pursued a Ph.D. and was lucky enough to get jobs in really superb universities.
What do you enjoy about teaching?
One of the best things about teaching philosophy is being able to clarify complex and confusing ideas to students who are discovering them for the first time. Talking with motivated students about philosophy is one of the greatest things about my job. And meeting a new group of young people every year keeps you stimulated and intellectually alive.
How is CEU different from other institutions you have worked at?
CEU is small and young, and therefore nimble. I previously taught at UCL in London, and Cambridge — two great institutions, but both very large with heavy traditions, and it was hard to make changes. At CEU if you want to do something new, and do it quickly, it is easy. There is a sense of excitement and freedom about what is possible.
Another thing: CEU is incredibly international. All universities these days like to boast about the diversity of their student body but at CEU it is really true. My first philosophy class here contained 14 students, they were from Peru, Iran, China, India, Australia, Turkey, Czechia, the USA, Hungary and even the UK. At Cambridge, philosophy students would typically come from the UK, from Germany and the USA, and occasionally from other countries.
© CEU/Alexander Chitsazan
What do you think are the benefits and the challenges of this diversity in the classroom?
CEU’s diversity makes a huge difference in the classroom. One of the benefits is that you can learn about a huge variety of views and experiences. Another one is that few of our students have English as a first language. This is incredibly useful for philosophy, because it can bring out the ways in which academic philosophy in English can be too tied to particular parochial features of the English language.
One of the challenges is that you cannot assume that students will necessarily understand all the historical and cultural references which you make when teaching.
However, I have discovered some cultural universals. I asked my first class if they had all heard of The Beatles and they looked at me as if I was utterly stupid. Of course, they had, and they all thought The Beatles were great. That was an education for me.
How can students put philosophy into practice?
Philosophy gives you the ability to scrutinize everything, all your assumptions. Philosophy should make you skeptical about claiming you know things when you don’t; it should make you capable of expressing your ideas as clearly and precisely as you can. But it should also give you a sense of proportion, a sense of what really matters.
Tell us more about CEU’s two new bachelor’s programs. What makes them special?
They are each special in their different ways. The BA in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics gives you an intense introduction to three of the central disciplines in the modern university — philosophy, politics and economics — and then allows you to study two of them in depth. PPE is multidisciplinary.
The BA in Culture, Politics, and Society is different: here you explore questions across disciplines, as is appropriate for studying the social and cultural aspects of our world. CPS is a genuinely interdisciplinary degree, it relies on breaking down barriers between disciplines.
What is special to both programs is that you are taught in small groups by leading experts in the field. There are very few places in Europe where you can do this.
What is the difference between them? Who would you recommend each to?
I would say if you are interested in the study of culture (e.g. art, communication, power, gender) and how it relates to politics, then choose CPS. If you are interested in the more abstract, speculative questions in philosophy (who am I? what’s it all about?) or you like the rigor of mathematical economics, then choose PPE. (However, it’s worth pointing out that you do not have to be interested in math to do PPE.)
© CEU/Daniel Vegel
What skills will students develop during the program and why are they important in today’s world?
In PPE you will learn how to reason clearly, how to address abstract questions, how to analyze complex and unusual texts, how to question your assumptions about the human and non-human world, how to think like an economist. In sum, you will learn how to analyze complex ideas and understand some of the most important ‘big ideas’ of our intellectual tradition (truth, justice, money, the mind, power, the state, and so on).
What is your ideal candidate like?
Intellectually curious, interested in ideas, skeptical, enjoys reading and debating; interested in how the world works in the broadest sense. You should have a sense that these questions are complex, with one’s histories, and that they take a long time to answer. If you want quick and easy answers, or only answers that serve some practical purpose, then this is not for you.
© CEU/Daniel Vegel
What advice would you give to a high school student who is in the middle of choosing a bachelor’s degree program?
Think about what really drives your interest: what kinds of books or magazines do you like to read? What educational or intellectual resources do you turn to on the internet? What do you like talking about with your friends? You are going to spend three or four years studying something, so it should be something that gets you out of bed in the morning!
If you could give your 18-year-old self a piece of advice, what would it be?
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