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Failure to Communicate

Faculty Focus: Graham Hubbs

“My philosophy.” It’s an expression often injected before someone states their point of view, but for University of Idaho assistant professor of philosophy Graham Hubbs, it is an overused phrase that he believes is the main reason his field is so misunderstood.

“That makes it seem like philosophy is the business of irrationally declaring one’s own opinion. It is precisely the opposite. Philosophy is the business of rationally scrutinizing opinions, including, most importantly, one’s own. This scrutiny can take a number of forms, including the willingness to accept that a deeply held conviction might be wrong,” he said.

Hubbs is currently pursuing two areas of real-world research that illustrate just that principle.

The first area is his work in the “Toolbox Project.” The project, which includes collaborators from throughout the UI faculty as well as faculty from Michigan State University and Boise State University, is focused on how the discipline of philosophy and the tools it uses to analyze opinions and language can help cross-disciplinary research teams overcome hurdles.

Hubbs says the project is designed to help diverse teams researching everything from poverty and infectious diseases to the quest for and use of sustainable natural resources. The work is significant because many of these crucial multidisciplinary research endeavors have been stalled or weighed down by “a failure to communicate.”

“The project runs workshops that seek to identify and to overcome these failures,” he said.

Hubbs currently serves as the Toolbox Project’s advisor to UI’s Center for Modeling Complex Interactions, which is funded by a $10.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Hubbs’s second area of research also deals with communication and is equally impactful. In fact, the questions and conflicts he examines are vividly on display every day in the news: the freedoms of speech, press and assembly in democracy.

“The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution articulates all of these freedoms — but why? Are these freedoms strictly necessary for self-governance, or are they merely useful? If they are merely useful, can they be abridged, and if so, under what circumstances?” he said.

He explains that an understanding of the concepts of democracy and self-governance are crucial when looking at contemporary issues including Wikileaks, Edward Snowden, Ferguson and Citizens United.

“They only scratch the surface,” Hubbs said. “I have written on this as it pertains to the freedom of a democratic press and am currently at work on the relation between freedom of expression and civil disobedience.”

Hubbs revealed that his inspirations for pursuing these questions are simple and universal.

“I think most of us want to understand the pressing issues of our day. I want to understand, for example, whether the secret-revealing activities of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden are acceptable in a well-functioning democracy. Some people think the answer is obviously yes, and others think the answer is obviously no,” he said. “I don’t think the answer is obvious: I think arriving at an answer requires thinking carefully about the place of freedom of expression in a democracy. That is what motivates this branch of my research.”

Continuing his national and international collaborations, Hubbs recently participated in “Toolbox” events at Arizona State University and at the National Science Foundation BEACON Center at Michigan State University. He is also currently co-writing a paper on civil disobedience with a colleague at the University of Edinburgh.


Department of Politics and Philosophy

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Department of Politics and Philosophy
University of Idaho
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Phone: 208-885-6328