Yale News

Last month, the University appointed Michael Della Rocca as the newest Sterling Professor of Philosophy, one of the highest faculty honors the University awards the leading figure of a field. 

Della Rocca joined Yale’s philosophy department in 1991, where he has since worked to advance early modern philosophy research and mentor students to pursue their own ideas. He was department chair from 2001 to 2010, making appointments that shifted the department from one in “disarray” to a world-leading philosophy program. Earlier this year, Della Rocca’s wife, professor Christine Hayes, received the Sterling Professorship of Religious Studies in Classical Judaica. They are the second-ever Sterling professorship couple at Yale, according to acting chair of the philosophy department Kenneth Winkler.

“The recognition by Yale of achievements that I’ve had over the years is really gratifying to me,” Della Rocca said. “I think it’s partly in recognition of my achievements and scholarship, and also in recognition of my teaching and recognition of my service to the University … I love philosophical ideas. They’re vital to me. I love sharing these ideas with other people and getting other people excited in the same way that I am about ideas.” 

One of Della Rocca’s areas of research is the history of early modern philosophy. He noted that a principal aspect of his research is that there isn’t a “genuine distinction” between philosophy and the study of its history, where the “two are intertwined in ways that are essential.” According to Della Rocca, scholars often “overlook” the relationship between the history of philosophy and contemporary philosophy, so he brings those ideas into his research and his teaching.

Della Rocca’s colleagues have commended his achievement and applauded his influence in the field of the history of early modern philosophy.

“Michael Della Rocca is an extraordinarily distinguished researcher, a legendary teacher, and one of the university’s true citizens,” Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Szabó Gendler wrote in an email to the News. “As one of the greatest living scholars of early modern philosophy in the Western tradition, Michael has written two field-shaping volumes on Spinoza, and he recently published a breathtakingly learned book entitled The Parmenidean Ascent which explores the rationalist tradition from the ancient Greek world to modern times … It is hard to think of a colleague who more fully exemplifies the ideals of the Sterling Professorship.”

Professor of philosophy and government Steven Smith commented on how influential Della Rocca’s work is in philosophy. According to Smith, Della Rocca is one of the few people who study Baruch Spinoza, a political theorist who has “fallen into a kind of neglect” among philosophers. Smith emphasized Della Rocca’s “tremendous accomplishment” in bringing Spinoza back to the forefront of thinking about major philosophical problems of metaphysics, epistemology and ethics.

Philosophy professor Shelly Kagan recalled that when the University was considering tenuring Della Rocca, they asked experts in the field who they considered to be the “leading person” in the field of early modern philosophy. According to Kagan, “letters just came in praising” Della Rocca “to the sky.”

Professor of philosophy and classics Brad Inwood noted that Della Rocca “represents, in some ways, the very best of what Yale philosophy has offered for such a long time.” According to Inwood, Della Rocca’s emphasis on the intersection between philosophy and history and how these two areas work together, “epitomizes … what’s strong about the philosophy” at Yale.

Della Rocca played an instrumental role in building the philosophy department at Yale. According to Della Rocca, when he first arrived at Yale, the philosophy department was in “disarray,” to the point where the department was in “receivership,” which meant that “the University took over the philosophy department” and limited the department’s powers to make faculty appointments.

However, Della Rocca served as chair from 2001 to 2010, and during that period, he worked on rebuilding the program and making faculty appointments. Now, Della Rocca has been in the department longer than any other philosophy professor, and most of the colleagues that the News spoke to credited Della Rocca with his efforts in recruiting them to the University. 

“We went from being a complete disaster of a department to being one of the leading departments in philosophy in the country, and … it was, [Della Rocca], that took us from the start to where we are,” said Kagan. “He was incredibly creative, in terms of searches. He was always thinking about, is there some other program or some other department that we could do a joint search with, that would only cost as half as much resources and then would build bridges to other parts of the university. So he was always pro-active.”

According to philosophy professor Stephen Darwall, the rise in the national ranking of Yale’s philosophy department over the last few years “can be credited to Della Rocca.” Darwall noted that Della Rocca’s ability to defuse conflicts, “get along with everyone” and recruit top philosophy professors has had an “enormous effect on the department.”

Della Rocca is also known by many as an excellent mentor.

“He’s a very humane person, he’s very friendly, and he’s an excellent teacher and mentor,” Darwall said. “He’s really known in the field for mentoring graduate students, and he’s had a lot of really good graduate students that he’s been able to mentor and bring out into the world over the last 20 years.”

Inwood highlighted an anecdote about Della Rocca’s kindness in his mentorship. When Inwood taught at the University of Toronto before coming to Yale, one of his former doctorate students was studying Spinoza and stoicism, and after the student came to New Haven to sit in on Della Roca’s courses and speak with him, Della Rocca became “kind of an additional advisor.” Inwood recalled that Della Rocca “shared his expertise so generously.”

Della Rocca noted that his approach to mentoring is to welcome his students to disagree with him or to even ignore his arguments. He enjoys challenging students, and he also encourages them to challenge him too by pushing him to articulate his ideas more clearly.

“I love it when my students read my work and agree with me; I love it, even more, when they read my work and disagree with me; and I love it, most of all, when they don’t read my work at all and just go off on their own and develop their own philosophical ideas under my encouragement,” Della Rocca said. “I’m not looking for disciples in philosophy. I’m rather trying to inculcate people’s own views, and they can develop their own views in there and speak in their own voice.”

Philosophy and cognitive science professor L.A. Paul emphasized how “thoughtful” and “attentive” Della Rocca is toward his students. According to Paul, Della Rocca is able to encourage his students to take “intellectual risks” and make them feel comfortable.  

For students looking to study philosophy, Della Rocca advised them to “be bold” and “willing to consider new and radical ideas.” 

Winkler said he has taught with Della Rocca in Directed Studies. Winkler emphasized Della Rocca’s effective teaching style, along with “his intelligence, his modesty, his intellectual courage, his open-mindedness and his eagerness to enter into a philosophical discussion about anything with anybody.”

“He’s an enormously stimulating teacher,” Winkler said. “He’s very clear and very provocative. He often defends extreme views, and he’s very resourceful in defending them … He’s a remarkable reader of texts. He finds possibilities in them that elude other people, and those possibilities just make wonderful material for discussion.”

The department hosts a colloquium series each year.

SOPHIE WANG
Sophie Wang covers COVID-19 and Yale New-Haven Health. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she is a freshman in Berkeley College prospectively majoring in statistics & data science and English.