Noruega: Auge de la filosofía, las humanidades y la interdiscipliba
Enero 31, 2024

Five ERC grants: Philosophy is the new star at Oslo University

The discipline of philosophy is enjoying a resurgence at the University of Oslo following the launch of a number of innovative interdisciplinary teaching programmes and research projects that have attracted significant European Research Council (ERC) grant funding – all of which showcase the fundamental value of philosophy in combination with other disciplines.

The discipline forms part of the university’s department of philosophy, classics, history of arts and ideas (in Norwegian, shortened to IFIKK) and has 57 staff positions, 47 post-doctoral and PhD staff posts and 635 students.

The department now offers five bachelor degree programmes, four masters programmes and hosts five ERC grants. In 2022 it published 117 scientific publications. The department is host to the cross-scientific Center for Philosophy and the Sciences.

According to University of Oslo Professor of Philosophy Øystein Linnebo, philosophy became “a pillar” of the interdisciplinary University of Oslo (UiO) honours programme established in 2019, which has since become one of the most popular BA programmes at the university.

The hard years

“The hard years for the department (2018-2020) [during which staff posts were cut] spurred a lot of hard work to improve our situation. Some of the initiatives concern new degree programmes,” he told University World News.

A year after the honours programme was introduced, the philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) programme was launched, which has also become one of the university’s most sought-after programmes.

“As its name indicates, this latter programme also emphasises interdisciplinarity. Both programmes show how philosophy can be fruitfully combined with other disciplines, teaching skills that are highly valued among employers,” Linnebo said.

In 2022 the BA honours programme had a threshold of 64.9 points [compared to the medicine programme with 67.6 points] for acceptance and was the 17th most popular programme in Norway as measured by number of applicants per study place.

In 2023, 15,463 people applied to the humanities faculty at UiO, marking a 25% increase, while UiO saw a total increase of 16% in enrolment compared to the national average increase of 9%. The faculty had a total income in 2022 of NOK122 million (US$11.6 million), 33% of which was externally funded.

Professor Bjørn Stensaker, vice-rector for education at UiO, told University World News: “At the University of Oslo, we have tried to develop more flexible and inter-disciplinary study structures, allowing for motivated students to broaden their fields of study, while also strengthening their relevance to labour market needs. These offerings are extremely popular among the students.”

European Research Council grants

In addition to boosting teaching programmes, philosophy at UiO has been at the core of a number of interdisciplinary research projects led by philosophy academics, which have attracted significant ERC funding.

The IFIKK department at UiO currently hosts five active ERC grants: one ERC advanced grant, two ERC consolidator grants and two ERC starting grants, bringing in approximately €9 million (US$9.8 million).

In September 2023, IFIKK Head of Department Professor Tor Egil Førland told Khrono it was extraordinary that the department had so many ERC grants.

“If IFIKK had been a university,” he said, “only the University of Oslo, the University of Bergen and NTNU would have more ERC grants than us. That is saying something about the research milieu and the research culture at the department.

“I will be very surprised if we do not get more ERC grants. That is why I said that I would eat the small goldfish in my office if we do not succeed,” he said.

Speaking directly to University World News, Førland said: “A few months later, the fishes in his aquarium were saved by the acquisition of another consolidator grant, in art history. Still, the ERC success of IFIKK’s philosophers is overwhelming.

“It can be explained in part by their brilliance but also by their cross-disciplinary usefulness. The majority of our ERC grantees emanate from the Centre for Philosophy and the Sciences. They work with linguists, psychologists, mathematicians, biologists.

“Philosophy is much more than ‘pure thinking’. Its application is so wide it can enrich any science. In this respect, the philosophers at the University of Oslo have similarities with ancient philosophy – another IFIKK stronghold – unbridled by disciplinary boundaries.”

The current ERC philosophy-related grants include the following:

• Construction in the Formal Sciences (C-FORS), an advanced grant valued at €2.023 million and led by Linnebo as principal investigator. The project aims to develop new groundbreaking applications of the constructional approach and spans four academic fields: philosophy, mathematics, semantics and formal ontology.

• GOODATTENTION: Attention norms and their role in practical reason, epistemology and ethics. A normative evaluation of attention, a consolidator grant with a value of €2 million, and led by Professor of Philosophy Sebastian Watzl.

The project concerns normative questions about attention: about, for example, ethically correct or rational patterns of attention and integrates research in psychology, neuroscience and linguistics with the philosophical fields of decision theory, epistemology, ethics and political philosophy.

• Dynamic Territory (DynamiTE), a starting grant worth €1.5 million which aims to develop a normative framework for territory in a world with rising sea levels, desertification, droughts, crop failure, floods and extreme weather events. Principal investigator is Professor of Philosophy Alejandra Mancilla.

• AssemblingLife (Self-Assembly: Shifting our view of life), a consolidator grant worth €2 million that aims to build a new theoretical framework for understanding and explaining life, building on the increasing knowledge about self-assembly and self-organisation processes. The project is led by Gry Oftedal, associate professor in the philosophy of life sciences at IFFIK, and at the Centre for Philosophy and the Sciences, University of Oslo, and other disciplines such as biology, nanoscience, chemistry and physics inform the philosophical work.

• DEVCOM: Pragmatics, Sense Conventions and Non-Literal Uses of Language is a starting grant worth €1.5 million. The project looks at how children cope with non-literal uses of language. Its principal investigator is Ingrid Lossius Falkum, an associate professor in philosophy and in linguistics.

Linnebo told University World News the department has run a project development group for a number of years, “where people at all stages of preparing a grant application get together to help and inspire each other”.

The power of philosophy

“In this way, writing a grant application can be made more social and perhaps even enjoyable,” Linnebo said.

He told University World News that all of the five active research projects combine philosophy with other fields – “so, yet again, showing the power of philosophy combined with other disciplines”.

Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, former rector of the University of Oslo and of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, and now acting secretary-general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities in Brussels, was equally upbeat.

“It warms my heart to see how the department of philosophy, classics, history of arts and ideas succeeds in bringing philosophy to the level it deserves. With its deep historic roots, philosophy has been and should still be seen as a key discipline in any broad university. Now we see how philosophy, in close interaction with other disciplines, enables us to take on new societal challenges,” he told University World News.

“The number of ERC grants awarded to the philosophy department is no less than impressive, and so is its attractiveness to new students. The teamwork behind these achievements stands to be applauded.

“Philosophy is not a historical vestige but a vital discipline that continues to structure our thoughts and deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in.

“In preparing for the new EU Framework Programme (FP10) we should ask that philosophy – along with the social sciences, arts and humanities at large – be seen as a central discipline for research and innovation and an integral part of the knowledge base for societal development. The challenges we face are without precedence and philosophy helps us tackle them,” he said.

According to Stensaker, the faculty of humanities has been “very successful in attracting highly talented staff and has shown an openness to the challenges facing humanities with respect to contemporary issues globally that I think is impressive”.

“Their success in the ERC scheme is undoubtedly related to these strategic efforts,” he said.

Per Magnus Kommandantvold, who serves as the EU national contact point in Norway for Horizon Europe in the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions and the European Research Council, said the University of Oslo and the faculty of humanities have “realised the essence” of the ERC grants.

“The principal investigator and the projects are measured on scientific excellence alone, while encouraging unconventional methods and innovative approaches to emerging fields. That is a key to success, and we at the Research Council of Norway are happy to see that they are doing so well in the hard competition for ERC grants.

“The development of the philosophy field is also good for other fields of science, as humanities should be better integrated in interdisciplinary research projects all over. All gain from that,” he said.

New avenues for humanities

Professor of Environmental History Sverker Sörlin based at the division of history of science, technology and environment at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, which received 12 large research projects including three ERC grants over the last decade (one of which was an advanced grant), said: “It seems that philosophy at UiO has cracked the ERC code! Very impressive. From what I have gathered, it seems that their broad thematic approaches with smartly designed interdisciplinarity pay off.”

Sörlin said the success of IFIKK speaks to a “systematic and sustainable approach. They develop proposals together and hence train on the task. A collective effort builds team spirit.

“We have worked in similar ways at the history division (much smaller with a mere half dozen faculty) at KTH in Stockholm.

“Another factor that seems to unite UiO philosophy and KTH history is a balancing of concentration and depth on the one hand with a certain spread of specialisations to allow for combinations that promise meaningful results. I have talked about this as ‘integrative humanities’, which can open new avenues for humanities knowledge in society at large.

“To link study programmes to the progression of research is probably also useful, to attract cutting-edge students, as long as you don’t become overly inward looking and specialised. Students need broad training for multiple careers, but they will also benefit immensely from regular contact with frontline research. They will meet highly respected scholars and get first-hand experience of intellectual leadership which builds confidence,” Sörlin said.

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