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On the Origin of Ralph

Even Ralph Wedgwood’s first name is interesting. It sums up “the quirky historical contingency and poetry of language, in one sonorous monosyllable,” says the USC Dornsife philosopher.

Arriving from the University of Oxford, philosopher Ralph Wedgwood is drawn to the abstract. His desire to ask the big questions and challenge the norm goes way back. Photo by Roger Snider.
Arriving from the University of Oxford, philosopher Ralph Wedgwood is drawn to the abstract. His desire to ask the big questions and challenge the norm goes way back. Photo by Roger Snider.

First you should know that Ralph Wedgwood’s first name is pronounced the old-fashioned English way so that it rhymes with waif.

He explained the history of this pronunciation on his USC Dornsife School of Philosophy webpage, including a list of others who use the same pronunciation: philosopher Ralph Cudworth, composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and actor Ralph Fiennes.

The name goes way back to his family on his father’s side, who were in the fine china business in the Midlands of England. Teacups, saucers, that kind of thing. Humble potters, really, until his fifth great-grandfather created a new earthenware that so impressed the then-British queen consort that it came to be known as “queen’s ware.”

That Wedgwood.

If that’s not enough, his great, great, great, great uncle was among the most revolutionary scientists in the history of humankind.

Hyperbole? We’re talking about the naturalist behind the theory of evolution: Charles Darwin.

“So I guess I did come from a family that put an enormous emphasis on the value of intellectual pursuits and scholarship,” said Wedgwood, who also cites novelists and historians such as C.V. Wedgwood among his clan. “My family always thought scholarship was exciting and delightful — and fun.”

But Wedgwood isn’t only interested in gaining knowledge. He wants to dissect the theory of knowledge itself, find out what distinguishes true from false knowledge. Joining USC Dornsife in 2012, Wedgwood is an expert in epistemology. He also studies ethics, but rather than ask what is the right thing to do, he asks how can we know right versus wrong? The field is meta-ethics.

You could call it an evolutionary career path for Wedgwood, who as an undergraduate studied classics and modern languages at the University of Oxford.

Having a father who speaks as many as 20 languages, Wedgwood has always been intrigued with language and is fluent in several. As an undergrad, he studied Latin, Greek and German. Focusing on Greek, he began reading works of ancient philosophers.

“I got quite fascinated by Plato,” Wedgwood said. “It’s partly because it’s the beginning of the history of Western philosophy. They are confronting these big questions — what is knowledge, what is the best way to live — for the first time.”

Studying German, Wedgwood became interested in poet, playwright and philosopher Friedrich Schiller, who wrote extensively about his contemporary, German philosopher Immanuel Kant.

“So in all those ways I was sort of primed to move into philosophy,” said Wedgwood, who earned his master’s in philosophy at King’s College in London, then his Ph.D. at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

“What really interested me at the time was the history of ethics: Plato, Aristotle and Kant. So, I went to Cornell, which specialized in that area,” said Wedgwood, who studied under well-known ancient Greek philosopher Terence Irwin and historian of German philosophy Allen Wood.

The core of his interests lies in meta-ethics.

“Instead of asking ethical questions about gun laws or the death penalty or abortion, meta-ethics asks questions about those questions,” Wedgwood said. “What are we doing when we ask ethical questions? Are we trying to get at some right answer that’s out there; if so then how could we possibly find it? Or if we are not trying to get at a right answer, then what are we doing? Why are we agonizing over ethical questions if there’s no chance of arriving at the wrong answer?”

He researched these questions at the University of Oxford, where he was professor of philosophy. A dual citizen of Canada and England, he was also associate professor of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Wedgwood chose USC Dornsife because its School of Philosophy is on the verge of greatness. He called its move to hire a number of promising young philosophers “inspired.”

“In my field, some of the really strong people here at USC Dornsife are actually younger scholars.” With them, Wedgwood discusses not what we think, but what we ought to think.

“Meta-ethics is partly about what it even means to talk about moving humanity forward.”

That said, right now he’s eyeing the tickets to the Los Angeles Philharmonic lying on his desk. His second love is music. And it’s not a form of escapism. He takes music as seriously as philosophy.

He won’t be satisfied to simply enjoy the music. He must understand the history of music and music theory.

“My mind is probably an abstract, theoretical mind,” he said. “I’m drawn to quite abstruse questions in a way. I believe that as a philosopher, you’re contributing to a large social discourse — a whole culture is engaged in thinking about how we ought to live. I think it filters through and can help to improve the kind of ethical discussion that goes on in our society.”