Matthew Ratcliffe: "Understanding human experience"

Shedding new light on the nature of human experience by combining phenomenology, emotion theory, and psychiatry – this distinctive approach has led Matthew Ratcliffe to exceptional research results. In April 2015, he was appointed "Professor of Theoretical Philosophy" at the Faculty of Philosophy and Education.

uni:view: Why did you choose to go into Philosophy?
Matthew Ratcliffe: My first memory is of being utterly bewildered by the fact of existence, finding the world thoroughly strange in every respect, and realizing that I had no idea what I was. It was this kind of bewilderment that attracted me to philosophy, more so than the desire for an academic career.

uni:view: Today, your work focusses on phenomenology, the philosophy of emotions and psychiatry. How are these fields linked?
Ratcliffe: Phenomenology is the philosophical study of the structure of experience. Psychiatric illness often involves changes in that structure, which are very difficult to understand. Phenomenological research can cast new light on the kinds of experience associated with psychiatric illness diagnoses. Additionally, we can do original phenomenological research by studying these experiences. Changes in the phenomenology of emotion, feeling, and mood are central to many forms of anomalous experience.

uni:view: What is your current research about?
I am writing a book entitled "Real Hallucinations". It offers a detailed philosophical account of auditory verbal hallucinations – which are often described in a misleading way, as hearing a voice in the absence of a speaker – and thought insertion – experiencing one's own thoughts as emanating from someone else. My account emphasizes the extent to which, and the ways in which, human experience is shaped by interpersonal and social relations, with specific reference to the effects of traumatic events involving other people.

uni:view: And after finishing your book?
I will turn my attention to the topic of "grief". My aim is to assemble a major, cooperative, interdisciplinary research project, which will address various different aspects of grief that are currently poorly understood.

uni:view: How can your research impact on society?
Philosophy has all sorts of "impacts", some more direct and obvious than others. An overarching aim of my research is to contribute to the understanding of human experience, something that has various practical repercussions. To be more specific, the kind of work that I do has the potential to inform our understanding of, attitudes towards, and response to psychiatric illness. During the next few years, I hope to do the same for the topic of "grief".

uni:view: Speaking of society, what would you say are common prejudices against philosophers?
I would think the most common prejudices are that (a) philosophers talk rubbish, (b) they talk rubbish in overly complicated, deliberately obscure ways, and (c) what they do is so far removed from the real world that it is completely pointless. Unfortunately, in some cases, such accusations have at least a degree of merit. But they are not true of the discipline as a whole.

uni:view: You have been a professor at the University of Vienna for about a year. What are your aims at the Department of Philosophy of the University of Vienna?
I aim to set up a cohesive program of teaching and research, focused around the intersections between phenomenological research and the study of psychiatric illness. This will involve building up a research group and increasingly establishing the University of Vienna as an internationally important center for work in this area.

uni:view: And as a teacher, which aspects do you consider important?
I try to convey to students my own fascination in the topics I am researching (and other topics as well). I try to engage them in the research process, to get them to thinking philosophically, and to realize that they can make original contributions to the discipline. So I expect them to think for themselves.

uni:view: Which philosopher's work presents a good academic example?
Ratcliffe: The US-American philosopher and psychologist William James (1842-1910), whose breadth, searching curiosity, and willingness to consider all manner of possibilities makes many contemporary philosophers appear lamentably conservative and over-specialized by comparison. I also like the way he writes; nobody would get away with it these days, which is a shame.

uni:view: What are you doing when you are not doing philosophy?

Ratcliffe: I spend most of my spare time with my two children, aged 6 and 8. This tends to involve such pastimes as playing football, going to the zoo, and getting dragged onto roller-coasters in the Prater Park. We also have a cat, two pet rabbits, four royal pythons, a boa constrictor, and a fish tank. So most of the time I have left is spent looking after animals. If I do have a spare couple of hours, I like to watch vacuous science fiction films and drink wine.

uni:view: Thank you for the conversation.

Matthew Ratcliffe's inaugural lecture "Real Hallucinations: Psychiatric Illness, Intentionality, and the Interpersonal World" will take place on May 9th, 2016 at 17:00 at the Lecture Hall BIG 1, University of Vienna, Universitätsring 1. It is held in the framework of the dies facultatis (PDF) of the Faculty of Philosophy and Education. Part of the programme are also poster presentations by doctoral candidates of the faculty and the award ceremony for outstanding dissertations.