The tale of the fox and the grapes

Tullio Viola, Assistant Professor in Philosophy at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, is a historically minded philosopher. On the one hand, he focuses on the history of late 19th-, and early 20th-century philosophy, in particular on the relationship between philosophy and the social sciences in North America and Europe. On the other hand, Tullio looks at how knowledge is shaped by social and cultural forces. He explains that while the idea that knowledge is socially constructed is widely accepted, philosophers often limit themselves to exploring the effects of social structures in the present, rather than taking a broader historical perspective. “That’s what I’m ultimately interested in: how knowledge is not just a social construct, but a result of historical change and broader cultural influences.”


This combination of being a philosopher as well as a historian can at times be challenging. Especially in grant applications, choosing the right discipline to hand in the application can be a difficult decision. “My profile doesn’t easily fit predetermined categories, and whichever I choose, there will always be someone who doesn’t recognize my profile,” Tullio explains. 

Tullio likes to understand a philosophical question by starting from the historical case. “Take for example my current research. I look into how knowledge is affected by a very specific domain of culture, namely folklore – and folk narratives in particular. Recently, scholars have suggested that folk narratives do not only include the sagas, legends or tales that we all know, but any kind of narrative that is transmitted informally within a community. In a way, social media nowadays may be seen as a major channel of folklore transmission.” Tullio’s latest project looks at how folk narratives can be a vehicle of knowledge. “In a recent publication, I looked at a manifestation of folklore in modern urban environments. In the early 20th century, philosopher and sociologist Jane Addams studied poor, disadvantaged, working class women in Chicago who drew on an urban legend to make sense of their own situation and criticise their own conditions.”

Tullio’s interest in late 19th-, early 20th century is not unusual. “It’s historically speaking a very interesting era. Philosophy changes under the influence of new disciplines such as sociology, anthropology and psychology, and it is suddenly no longer the queen of the sciences and is forced to engage in dialogue with these other disciplines.”

question birds

Being understood by those who are different

While Tullio was set on taking his interest in interdisciplinarity to the US to do a PhD there, this proved more challenging than expected. “US applications were very competitive. On top of that, I was unaware of how the PhD process in the US worked and what philosophy departments were looking for. I tried to present myself as a philosophy scholar grounded in history, but I probably came across as someone who couldn’t make up his mind as to which discipline he preferred. In the US, philosophy departments are typically not very open to a historical standpoint. In hindsight, I had the wrong profile and applications were simply too competitive.”

When many of the US applications failed, Tullio decided to apply for PhD positions in Germany. “I received a scholarship from a research centre in Berlin. I had done my master’s exchange at the same institute so I knew some of the people there. That was in a sense the biggest pitfall of my PhD: I was recognized for my value by people who were like me, but it was difficult to learn how to be understood by people who are different. Don’t get me wrong, my Berlin years were extremely formative and I have no regrets, but I did – and still do – see this as a limitation.”

Grant application setback

Tullio explains that “this difficulty in making myself understood by those who have a different background goes hand-in-hand with not fitting in predetermined funding categories. The interplay of the two has probably led to my failure in past grant applications, all the while grants are such an important aspect of academia, which is starting to become problematic. There not only goes a lot of time into writing grant applications, but assessors also spend a lot of time and energy reviewing applications. This makes the grant application culture unproductive, because only a handful of grants are awarded.”

For Tullio, grant application culture resembles the fable of the fox and the grapes: a fox tries to eat grapes but can’t reach them. Instead of admitting defeat, the fox simply says he didn’t want the grapes anyway. “I am trying to avoid becoming the fox, regardless of the setbacks I have had in applications.” These setbacks should actually be seen as an opportunity, Tullio thinks. “Writing grant applications is an exercise in which I explain my research to others who are not in my discipline, as well as to a non-academic audience. I do feel like I have got a bit better at it, also thanks to the tremendous help from within the faculty – especially from colleagues in the research panel, in the philosophy and history departments, and in the Arts, Media and Culture research group.”

Besides trying to improve his grant application writing skills, Tullio believes it is crucial not to give grant applications too much importance, as there are many other ways to be a good academic. “Being a good academic is not just about receiving major grants. It is also about producing good publications or being a great teacher.” Asked about the nation-wide Recognition and Rewards programme, he says that it will hopefully contribute to broadening our views on what being a good academic entails. “It would be good to take away some of the pressure of applying for grants, and to create a more inclusive environment for those scholars who perform well in other academic domains.”


By: Eva Durlinger

Portrait picture by: Eric Bleize