Return to an Intellectual Eden

Harvard professor Ned Hall ’87 brings an insider's perspective to his role as a trustee.

Randall S. Barton | February 5, 2018

When he was a student at Reed, Ned Hall ’87 was caught up in a web of ideas. 

“At Reed, you don’t need to find a cadre of people with whom you can feel comfortable and then erect a different persona for the rest of the people,” he says. “It’s okay to be freely interested in exploring ideas for the sake of satisfying your curiosity. That’s palpable on the campus.”

In October, Ned was appointed one of two new trustees at Reed. He is the Norman E. Vuilleumier Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University, where he serves as department chair and director of graduate admissions. Before joining the faculty at Harvard in 2005, he taught in the department of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As a professor, he’s aware of the pressures on today’s students.

Ned grew up in what is now Silicon Valley and went to Homestead High School, whose alumni include Steve Jobs ’76 and Steve Wozniak, and always considered himself as a math/science nerd destined for Caltech or MIT. But some influential high school teachers made him realize that ideas that are interesting and worth taking seriously are not confined to math and science. 

When it came time to pick a college he decided, “Reed is the kind of intellectual Eden that I want to go to.” He found a campus with inspirational professors who guided students in promising directions while letting them discover ideas for themselves.

“They set up the conditions for discovery,” he says, and singles out Prof. Robert Knapp [English 1974–]. “He was able to feed the discussion. It was like fire, and if necessary he would nudge a little bit of fuel closer to the fire. It’s the kind of professor I would like to be.”

Ned’s research interests focus on metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of science. He is the author of Philosophy of Science: Metaphysical and Epistemological Foundations and coeditor of Causation and Counterfactuals.

“I get very interested in philosophical questions about the most general and important concepts in scientific inquiry,” Ned explains, “about the nature of knowledge gathering in the big picture categories of science—space, time, causation, law of nature, chance, determinism and indeterminism, evidence, hypothesis, confirmation, disconfirmation, knowledge and opinion.”

As a trustee, Ned hopes to bring an insider’s perspective on the pressures on today’s students and the role of the liberal arts in civil society. 

Tags: Alumni, Institutional