Early last winter, two years after receiving his doctorate, a Franklin & Marshall professor submitted an essay for a coveted philosophy prize, seeking in part to provoke dialogue on the modern-day necessity of an archaic form of thought.
"I thought it was a long shot," said Assistant Professor of Philosophy Nick Kroll, as he relaxed one sunny afternoon in his office in F&M's Ann and Richard Barshinger Life Sciences & Philosophy Building. "But I thought it would be really great to have this view recognized and get a discussion going."
This spring, to Kroll's surprise and delight, his essay on "Teleological Dispositions" won the 2014 Marc Sanders Prize in Metaphysics, a preeminent philosophy honor awarded by the Marc Sanders Foundation.
"Professor Kroll’s paper was broad in scope, tackling an important issue in the metaphysics of causation," said Dean Zimmerman, who administers the prize and is professor of philosophy at Rutgers University and co-editor of Oxford Studies in Metaphysics. "It illustrated the relevance of facts from the philosophy of language to the nature of dispositions. The view defended, positing intrinsic teleology in nature, is an ancient and respectable one -- but one that is not widely defended today."
The organization's founder, the late Marc Sanders, was a philanthropist and writer whose view was that science alone could not explain the natural world. He created the prize to support renewed appreciation for traditional philosophy.
"Dispositions have puzzled philosophers for a long time," said Kroll, who focuses his scholarship on such metaphysical concepts. "They're sort of mysterious."
The Sanders Prize is an annual essay competition, 7,500 to 15,000 words, and open to young scholars. Kroll specializes in the philosophy of language and metaphysics; one explains the nature of meaning, the other the nature of being. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale University in 2012.
Past prize recipients include scholars from Princeton University, Oxford University and New York University. Kroll's essay was one of 43 considered, according to the foundation.
"It's prestigious," said David Merli, associate professor of philosophy and chair of F&M's Philosophy Department. "It's a hard-to-win prize."
Recipients have their essays published in the Oxford Studies in Metaphysics, which is highly regarded among scholars.
"A lot of people in the field of metaphysics will read Nick's work," Merli said. "That speaks to the quality of research going on here at the College."
How something or someone reacts to a condition or event is one definition of the word "disposition," but Kroll defines it as being in a state, such as when an angry person yells or when salt dissolves in water.
"What does it mean to say salt is soluble, that it could dissolve? We say salt has this property -- solubility -- but the property says this could happen, not that it will," he said. "What my paper does is offer a specific definition of dispositions."
In his essay, the philosophy professor also addressed teleology, a form of thinking that dates to the age of Aristotle in which it was believed all things in nature had a purpose and were directed toward an end.
Salt's purpose, for example, would be to dissolve, a way of thinking that "hasn't been taken seriously since the scientific revolution," Kroll said. He argues, though, that it's a mistake to discard teleology and that it still is a valid approach in which to begin to understand how things work in the natural world.
"Sometimes, ideas get discarded for the wrong reason," Kroll said. "We actually need teleological notions in philosophy and in science because without them we can't understand what dispositions are."
With the award's $10,000 stipend Kroll said he plans to continue his research at the "mysterious" intersection of the philosophy of language and metaphysics.