When Santino Petrocelli and four of his fellow philosophy majors wanted to study Richard Rorty, a prominent American philosopher on whom no course was then offered, they approached one of their professors. Distinguished Professor Robert Brandom enthusiastically responded, developing a directed study on the topic just for this interested group of students. Brandom was uniquely qualified to lead the students in this study, as Rorty had been his dissertation supervisor at Princeton University.
This sort of access for students to the University of Pittsburgh’s world-renowned faculty members is central to the mission of the Department of Philosophy. The department was created in the early 1960s, when Chancellor Edward Litchfield and Provost Charles Peake decided to invest in and create a philosophy department that would be among the best in the world. To do so, they recruited Wilfrid Sellars, one of the greatest American philosophers, laying the foundation for the department to become home to the best living philosophers, a lineage that continues today.
Immediately after Sellars’ arrival, Pitt became ranked among the top five philosophy departments in the country, and in the more than 50 years since, it has never fallen out of the top five in National Research Council and other reputational rankings. When the department was created with the goal of establishing a world-class department of the best and brightest in philosophy, it was the University’s intention that all students should have access to and be able to interact with all department faculty members.
Today, every faculty member in the department teaches every term, and, as all students in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences are required to take at least one course that meets the general education requirement for philosophy, many choose to do so within the philosophy department. The outstanding international reputation of the philosophy department and its faculty is what attracted Petrocelli to Pitt. Like many of the upperclassmen in the department, he began his college career at another institution but transferred to Pitt once he identified his passion for philosophy.
“What interested me at first about the philosophy major was the subject matter I was exposed to in introductory classes—philosophers writing beautiful passages, the content of which is aimed at asking life’s biggest questions,” Petrocelli says. “Then I read up on the department here at Pitt. It is one of the best in the English-speaking world, consistently ranked in the top five by the generally recognized authorities.”
In his time at Pitt, Petrocelli has honed his interest in the field of philosophy, focusing most recently on the philosophy of math. In the summer of 2015, he completed a Brackenridge Summer Research Fellowship, for which he conducted research comparing the respective attempts by Bertrand Russell and Gottlob Frege at reducing math to logic and considered this in the context of a recent revival of their attempts called logicism. Completing the fellowship and the directed study were very rewarding to Petrocelli, but he says that what has made his education here most rewarding is the complete Pitt experience.
“It’s hard to choose a single most rewarding experience,” he says. “I’ve met some people whose friendship has proven very rewarding, taken some classes that were very rewarding, and completed some projects that were very rewarding. I don’t think I would be telling the truth if I prioritized one of them.”
One of the unique experiences that Petrocelli has enjoyed during his time at Pitt was as an officer in the Panther Cycling Club. While holding a leadership role in the club provided challenges at times, it also provided him with the opportunity to share his passion for cycling with others in the community, further develop his own cycling abilities, provide access for him and Pitt students to local and regional races, and even send Pitt students to national championships.
Petrocelli, a Pittsburgh-area native, is on track to graduate in December. He plans to continue his studies and eventually teach philosophy himself. To undergraduates considering a major in philosophy, he offers this advice: “Absolutely do it! Read as much as you can, and keep up with all of your assignments. Also, talk to your professors early. It is completely appropriate to reach out and talk to faculty about your future and about philosophy.”