Brackenridge 2020 Introduction and Aspirations

Hello everyone! My name is Max Nowalk and I am currently a rising senior at Pitt. I am pursuing majors in Philosophy and German, specifically the Interdisciplinary German Studies major, as well as a certificate in West European Studies. Funnily enough, I’ve never studied German or much philosophy until coming to Pitt, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my courses and hope to continue studying such topics beyond undergrad.

You might recognize me from around Pitt’s campus because I’ve been working in the student mailroom since I started as a freshman! I was also on Pitt’s mock trial team for my first two years and have contributed to the undergraduate Pitt Political Review journal. You can usually find me around the Cathedral of Learning since I’m lucky enough to have most of my humanities classes in there, and it’s by far my favorite building on Pitt’s campus. (Keeping my fingers crossed we get to return to campus come Fall: my bedroom just doesn’t have the same magical atmosphere as the commons area!) I was raised in Pittsburgh and hope to eventually settle down in the area.

The project I’m conducting for the Brackenridge is focused on a subfield of ethics called metaethics and a recent position within it that’s received a lot of attention. Because I’m interested in evaluating this position and its plausibility within metaethics, my work is more theoretical and discipline-specific than applied philosophical analysis. However, these sorts of views have significant implications for how we interact with each other and the world around us by investigating the nature of value and moral claims.

The position in question, called “constructivism,” proposes that our moral claims do not derive from external reality like, for example, the claims of biology or chemistry. Rather, constructivists say the truth of moral claims depends on our capacity for rational action or agency; value is mind-dependent, according to this view, in the sense that certain values are entailed from within our perspective as practical agents. My project, for now titled “Principles of Practical Reason in Kantian and Humean Constructivism,” seeks to examine two constructivist branches, Kantian and Humean, insofar as they differ on what the constitutive principles of practical reason are and their resulting implications for metaethical questions.

My research seeks to contribute a narrowly focused analysis of the strengths for these approaches, which will hopefully grant a richer understanding and assessment of the constructivist project. My research mentor is Professor Nandi Theunissen, associate professor in the Pitt philosophy department, who also works on topics within metaethics such as arguments about the value of humanity and the nature of reasons for action.

Currently, I aspire to complete a JD, PhD program with a doctorate in philosophy, but I’m not sure when I will seriously look at applying to graduate school after Pitt. I’m also working to apply to Fulbright and DAAD scholarships in order to earn a philosophy master’s degree in Germany. Within the framework of the Brackenridge, I am excited to continue my own independent research, hone my argumentative skills, and contribute to the broader scholarly community. The idea of sharing big philosophical ideas with peers from other disciplines is especially exciting to me because it means I’ll be getting unique perspectives to help me sort through these arguments! Any researcher should be capable of explaining the big ideas behind their project, so I’m eager to improve my own understanding by discussing it with others and to present each position in the most compelling way possible.

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