Distinguished Professor: Robert Schwartz

Distinguished Professor: Robert Schwartz

Schwartz’s broad impact has influenced philosophy of psychology, metaphysics, and philosophy of science.

By Peter Hansen
Photo Robert Schwartz

Robert Schwartz was a pre-med student at the University of Pennsylvania when he first discovered philosophy. “A friend told me it was an interesting thing,” he recalls. “I took a course, and I became fascinated.”

As a first-year medical student interested in brain research, he was invited to visit the Harvard Center for Cognitive Studies. “I found it all fascinating, more fascinating than dissecting bodies and looking into people’s throats, so I continued on in this area of cognition.”

Since receiving his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1966, Schwartz has distinguished himself by examining psychological issues such as visual perception and number cognition.

Schwartz argues that many philosophers “get it wrong” by not learning important lessons from psychology about object perception, illusions, and color vision.

“There’s vast literature in philosophy on color and color perception and what it means that there are these visual illusions and things,” he says. “And I think a lot of that is misguided.”

Schwartz estimates that half of his published work has appeared in the psychology literature. “That’s just because that’s the kind of work I do; people in philosophy wouldn’t be interested.”

But scholars from many diverse fields have taken notice, including linguist Noam Chomsky and psychologist Roger Shepard.

A reviewer of his 2006 book, Visual Versions, writes that “Schwartz links various themes in the philosophy of perception in novel and highly illuminating ways” and cites “his maverick range of interests and his sharp sense of the interconnections between them.”

In the area of metaphysics—the philosophical study of being and knowing—Schwartz is considered a leading proponent of the view that facts are as much constructed as they are discovered, a view that has received much attention in the last 25 years.

Also interested in the philosophy of science, Schwartz explores inductive logic, where, in contrast to deduction, specific facts are used to draw a general conclusion.

Schwartz, who has been at UWM since 1982, views the Philosophy Department as one of the best in the country. “Although it falls into the analytical tradition, it’s much more ecumenical than most in terms of the areas we explore, the ways they’re explored, and the courses we offer.”

Schwartz is also an active member of the UWM Cognitive Studies Research Group, whose weekly meetings have attracted faculty and students from linguistics, philosophy, educational psychology, and other areas for over 20 years.