Meet Michael Della Rocca, Yale’s New Sterling Philosophy Professor


Yale News

Last month, the University named Michael Della Rocca as Sterling’s newest professor of philosophy, one of the faculty’s highest honors that the University bestows on a leading figure in a field.

Della Rocca joined Yale’s Philosophy Department in 1991, where he has since worked to advance modern philosophy research and mentor students to pursue their own ideas. He served as department chair from 2001 to 2010, making appointments that took the department from a “disarray” program to a leading philosophy program. Earlier this year, Della Rocca’s wife, Professor Christine Hayes, received the Sterling Professorship of Religious Studies in Classical Judaica. They are the second couple of Sterling professors at Yale, according to acting chair of the philosophy department Kenneth Winkler.

“Yale’s recognition of the accomplishments I have had over the years really gratifies me,” said Della Rocca. “I think it’s partly in recognition of my accomplishments and scholarship, and also in recognition of my teaching and recognition of my service to the University… I like philosophical ideas. They are vital for me. I like to share these ideas with other people and excite other people the same way I do for ideas.

One of Della Rocca’s areas of research is the history of modern philosophy. He noted that a main aspect of his research is that there is no “real distinction” between philosophy and the study of its history, where the “two are essentially intertwined”. According to Della Rocca, academics often “forget” the relationship between the history of philosophy and contemporary philosophy, so he incorporates these ideas into his research and teaching.

Della Rocca’s colleagues praised his success and applauded his influence in the field of the history of modern philosophy.

“Michael Della Rocca is an extraordinarily distinguished researcher, a legendary teacher and one of the true citizens of the university,” wrote Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Szabó Gendler in an email to News. “As one of the foremost living scholars of early modern philosophy in the Western tradition, Michael has written two volumes on Spinoza and he recently published a mind-boggling book titled The ascent of Parmenides who explores the rationalist tradition of the ancient Greek world to modern times… It is hard to think of a colleague who more fully exemplifies the ideals of Sterling Professorship.

Professor of Philosophy and Government Steven Smith commented on the influence of Della Rocca’s work on philosophy. According to Smith, Della Rocca is one of the few people to study Baruch Spinoza, a political theorist who “fell into a kind of neglect” among philosophers. Smith underlined Della Rocca’s “immense achievement” in bringing Spinoza to the forefront of reflection on the main philosophical problems of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.

Philosophy professor Shelly Kagan recalled that when the university was considering tenure Della Rocca, it asked experts in the field who they believed was the “leading person” in the field of modern philosophy. According to Kagan, “Letters have just arrived praising” Della Rocca “to heaven.

Philosophy and Classics professor Brad Inwood noted that Della Rocca “represents, in some ways, the best of what Yale philosophy has offered for so long.” According to Inwood, Della Rocca’s emphasis on the intersection of philosophy and history, and how these two fields work together, “embodies… what is strong in philosophy” at Yale.

Della Rocca was instrumental in building the philosophy department at Yale. According to Della Rocca, when he first arrived at Yale, the philosophy department was in “disarray” to the point where the department was in “receivership”, which meant that “the University has taken over the department of philosophy ”and limited the powers of the department. to make the appointments of professors.

However, Della Rocca was president from 2001 to 2010, and during this time he worked on the reconstruction of the program and the appointment of professors. Now, Della Rocca has been in the department longer than any other philosophy professor, and most colleagues News has spoken to have credited Della Rocca with his efforts to recruit them to college.

“We went from the complete disaster of one department to one of the main philosophy departments in the country, and… it was, [Della Rocca], which took us from start to where we’re at, ”Kagan said. “He was incredibly creative, in terms of research. He was still wondering if there was another program or department that we could do joint research with that would only cost half the resources and then build bridges to other parts of the university. He has therefore always been proactive.

According to philosophy professor Stephen Darwall, the rise in the national ranking of Yale’s philosophy department in recent years “can be attributed to Della Rocca”. Darwall noted that Della Rocca’s ability to defuse conflict, “get along with everyone” and recruit the best philosophy teachers has had a “huge effect on the department.”

Della Rocca is also known by many as an excellent mentor.

“He’s a very human person, he’s very sympathetic, and he’s a great teacher and mentor,” said Darwall. “He’s really known in the field for his graduate student mentorship, and he’s had a lot of really good graduate students that he’s been able to mentor and introduce to the world over the past 20 years.

Inwood pointed out an anecdote about Della Rocca’s kindness in her mentorship. When Inwood taught at the University of Toronto before coming to Yale, one of his former doctoral students was studying Spinoza and Stoicism, and after the student came to New Haven to attend Della Roca’s classes and talking to her, Della Rocca became “kind of an additional advisor.” Inwood recalled that Della Rocca “shared her expertise so generously”.

Della Rocca noted that his approach to mentoring is to invite his students to disagree with him or even ignore his arguments. He likes to challenge students, and he also encourages them to challenge him too by pushing him to articulate his ideas more clearly.

“I like when my students read my work and agree with me; I love it even more when they read my work and disagree with me; and I especially like it when they don’t read my work at all and go off on their own and develop their own philosophical ideas under my encouragement, ”said Della Rocca. “I am not looking for disciples in philosophy. Rather, I try to instill the point of view of the people, and they can develop their own point of view in there and speak with their own voice.

LA Philosophy and Cognitive Science professor Paul emphasized how “caring” and “caring” Della Rocca is towards her students. According to Paul, Della Rocca is able to encourage his students to take “intellectual risks” and to put them at ease.

For students who wish to study philosophy, Della Rocca advised them to be “bold” and “willing to consider new and radical ideas”.

Winkler said he taught with Della Rocca in supervised studies. Winkler highlighted Della Rocca’s effective teaching style, as well as “her intelligence, modesty, intellectual courage, open-mindedness and eagerness to engage in a philosophical discussion about anything with anyone” .

“He’s an extremely stimulating teacher,” Winkler said. “He is very clear and very provocative. He often defends extreme opinions, and he is very resourceful in defending them… He is a remarkable reader of texts. There are possibilities there that elude others, and those possibilities are simply a wonderful topic of discussion. “

The department hosts a series of conferences each year.