FSU philosophy professor wins coveted NEH Fellowship

Florida State University Associate Professor of Philosophy Nathanael Stein has been selected as a recipient of a highly competitive grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The NEH Fellowship, worth $60,000, will allow Stein to take a yearlong sabbatical to complete work on his forthcoming book tentatively titled “Causation and Explanation in Aristotle.”

Stein, a researcher of Ancient Greek philosophy who joined the FSU faculty in 2011, is one of just 81 NEH Fellowship winners this year. He is one of only six 2020-2021 winners across the nation who are conducting projects in philosophy.

“This is a wonderful opportunity, especially since fellowships like this — open to anyone in any part of the humanities — are rare and competitive,” Stein said. “I’m very grateful and lucky to have had such a supportive department and administration here at FSU.”

The book will explore Aristotle’s fourfold division of causes — the so-called formal, final, efficient and material causes — which established the framework in which causation would be studied in Europe and in the Islamic world for two millennia.

It will be the first full-length treatment of Aristotle’s account of causation in English-language scholarship for over a century.

“Before Aristotle, the idea that there could be a science of the natural world was one that needed to be argued for and defended,” Stein said. “If you asked an Ancient Greek what the paradigm of knowledge was, they would be more likely to refer to geometry because it was an organized body of stable knowledge.”

People didn’t think there could be a science of nature because nature was, almost by definition, a domain of constant change, Stein explained. Science for the Ancient Greeks needed stable facts they could grasp, and nature was not thought to be like that.

“Aristotle argued that, with the right principles, and especially with the right understanding of causality, you could have a science of nature after all,” he said. “Without the right principles, you’d end up being overly pessimistic about its prospects or optimistic for the wrong reasons.”

Aristotle’s theories organized the way philosophy and science were approached in the West for nearly two millennia, Stein said.

“While it hasn’t been studied as a whole in a long time, it should be studied because it is part of an ongoing conversation,” Stein said. “We’re missing something if we don’t include it. We tend to characterize our modern approaches to these topics in terms of the way they differ from ancient ones. To the extent that we’re unclear about the ancient theories themselves, we don’t have a good picture of the continuities and discontinuities between their views and ours.”

The ultimate goal of Stein’s book will be to understand how, in Aristotle’s view, the scientific image differs from the manifest image of nature. It will provide the basis for a general-interest examination of the way different approaches to causation yield different understandings of how the world of familiar things, including ourselves, relates to the world of fundamental entities described by scientists and philosophers.

“As abstract as it seems, you use these types of thinking every day without knowing it,” he said.

Stein’s NEH Fellowship marks the 15th for FSU over the past 20 years. Randolph K. Clarke (2012) was the last FSU philosophy professor to win an NEH Fellowship.

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is an independent federal agency created in 1965. It is one of the largest funders of humanities programs in the United States. This year, the NEH awarded $30.9 million in grants to support 188 humanities projects in 45 states and the District of Columbia.

NEH Fellowships are awards granted to individual scholars pursuing projects that embody exceptional research, rigorous analysis and clear writing. Applications must clearly articulate a project’s value to humanities scholars, general audiences or both. Fellowships provide recipients time to conduct research or to produce books, monographs, peer-reviewed articles, e-books, digital materials, translations with annotations or a critical apparatus or critical editions resulting from previous research.