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Developing a New Philosophy

Two new hires in USC Dornsife’s School of Philosophy, Professor John Hawthorne and Associate Professor Jonathan Quong, enhance the school’s upward trajectory.

USC Dornsife’s School of Philosophy has made two prestigious faculty hires this year with Professor John Hawthorne and Associate Professor Jonathan Quong. Photos courtesy of John Hawthorne and Jonathan Quong.
USC Dornsife’s School of Philosophy has made two prestigious faculty hires this year with Professor John Hawthorne and Associate Professor Jonathan Quong. Photos courtesy of John Hawthorne and Jonathan Quong.

People take notice when in the space of a few years, you surge to No. 11 from 46 in the national Philosophical Gourmet Report rankings, as USC Dornsife’s School of Philosophy has done.

The school’s impressive ascent is due in large part to the efforts of Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Scott Soames, who has overseen nearly a dozen new hires since his arrival from Princeton University in 2005.

“We’re bringing in world-class faculty and building innovative programs around them,” said Soames, school director.

This includes the hiring in Fall 2013 of Jonathan Quong as associate professor of philosophy.

“An expert in political and moral philosophy, Jon solidifies our strength in the normative end of philosophy, allowing us to compete with any program worldwide for the best Ph.D. students in ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of law and meta-ethics,” Soames said, noting that Quong chose USC Dornsife over an offer from the University of Oxford.

Joining USC Dornsife full-time in Fall 2015 is Professor of Philosophy John Hawthorne, who began teaching part-time at the school in Fall 2013.

“For over a decade I have known John Hawthorne to be a font of ideas who brings out the best in those around him, whether students, young professors or established world leaders,” Soames said. He is one of the most versatile philosophers in the world.”

Jonathan Quong

Although Jonathan Quong initially embarked on the path of political science as an undergraduate and master’s student, in time, he discovered that political theory and ultimately political philosophy intrigued him most. The theories of justice and democracy became the focus of his doctoral studies at the University of Oxford, which he completed in 2004.

Moving 160 miles north for his first job at the University of Manchester, the Vancouver, Canada, native braved 10 grey, rainy winters as a faculty member.

“The Manchester Center for Political Theory was very welcoming and vibrant, and a great place to be with fantastic colleagues and great graduate students,” Quong said.

But USC Dornsife caught his attention as a rising star in the academic world of philosophy. Quong admired Soames’ fortification of the school over the past nine years. 

In addition to his research in public reason and liberal political philosophy — which yielded his book Liberalism without Perfection (Oxford University Press, 2011), Quong has recently delved into the subject of “the morality of defensive harm.” In other words, the question of when it’s permissible to impose serious or lethal harm on someone in self-defense or in defense of others.

“I’ve explored how the moral rules or principles we work out with regard to self-defense might also apply to our just conduct in war and warfare,” he said.

He’s interested in how someone may forfeit the rights they normally have not to be hurt, and end up in a position where they’re liable to be harmed or killed in the defense of others.

“What constitutes necessary and proportionate self-defense, and what constitutes a reasonable use of force under conditions where we might have only limited evidence available to us?”

These are timely topics USC Dornsife students are likely pondering in his classroom.

John Hawthorne

John Hawthorne’s interest in philosophy stemmed from conversations with his opponents during long chess games. As a teenager in Birmingham, England, he met many chess players for whom philosophy was an ardent side-interest.

Eventually it drew him in, too.

“When it came time to pick a major, I realized I hadn’t been especially fascinated with some of the other subjects I’d studied, so philosophy seemed like a good option,” he said.

Currently teaching full-time as Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Magdalen College at the University of Oxford, Hawthorne has taught at Arizona State, Australian National, Rutgers, Princeton and Syracuse universities as well as the University of New South Wales.

Teaching one-on-one and in very large classrooms at various institutions has exposed him to a wide range of abilities, cultures and interest levels in philosophy, he said.

Hawthorne, with research interests spanning epistemology, metaphysics, the philosophy of language and the philosophy of mind, is known as a “generalist.”

“I leave it to others to judge which of my papers and books are most interesting. The main thing, for my part, is that I really enjoy producing relatively novel theories and ideas. I especially enjoy collaborative projects.”

To that end, he has written or co-authored several books published by Oxford University Press, including The Reference Book (with David Manley, 2012), Relativism and Monadic Truth (with Herman Cappelen, 2009), Metaphysical Essays (2006) and Knowledge and Lotteries (2004). When it comes to reading and not writing books, Hawthorne is an avid collector of 15th and 16th century books and manuscripts, which he enjoys poring over in his free time.

He was drawn to USC Dornsife because its already strong School of Philosophy is on the rise, and to Los Angeles for other reasons.

“You certainly can’t get sun and an In-N-Out burger in December in the U.K.,” he joked.

Brian Leiter, the University of Chicago professor who created the Philosophical Gourmet Report rankings, predicted that Hawthorne’s arrival will bring philosophy at USC Dornsife up to the top 10.

“This is a significant hire,” he said, giving Quong accolades as well. “A rising star in the world of English-speaking political philosophy, Jonathan Quong adds important breadth to the growing list of subfields of philosophy in which the USC School of Philosophy can now claim distinction.”

The next Gourmet survey will be assessed in early Fall 2014.