Bill Vitek, Clarkson University

Bill Vitek

Interview: How to think like a Philosopher with Bill Vitek

Bill Vitek is a Professor of Environmental Philosophy at Clarkson University, who tells us the story of how he came to be a philosopher and appreciate philosophy throughout his life with a great many teachers.

Below is a summary of our interview:


“Change the story and you change perception; change perception and you change the world” by Jean Houston, A Passion for the Possible It sums up what he does in the classroom.

His Journey

Just like all kids, Bill was a philosopher as a kid. But unlike other kids he had a dad who told him and his brothers to do what they loved. Bill took him up on his offer!  He went to college and studied Philosophy. After he graduated with few job prospects,  he went on to study and play music instead in Albany, New York. Jazz mostly, and three jazz albums for kids. But it’s tough making a living as a musician, so he went back to school and got a  Ph.D. in philosophy. He worked in in medical ethics, but when he arrived in Potsdam, NY and his job at Clarkson required him to teach a course in Environmental Ethics, he had to switch gears in a hurry. And one of Bill’s colleagues, Jan Wojcki gave him a book by Aldo Leopold to get him started.  It changed Bill’s life and put him on the path he is traveling today. [easyazon_image add_to_cart=”default” align=”center” asin=”0345345053″ cloaking=”default” height=”160″ localization=”default” locale=”US” nofollow=”default” new_window=”default” src=”” tag=”purposerockst-20″ width=”97″]

A Sand County Almanac

 changed the way Bill thought. And it put him in contact with other contemporary thinkers and activists trying to put Leopold’s ideas into practice.  Since 1990 Bill has been working with the Father of Perennial Agriculture, Wes Jackson. Jackson wants to change the way we’ve growing food for the last ten thousand years.  Bill has been working with Wes on developing the philosophy behind this radical notion. He and Jackson of published two books together, and they are working on a third.

Music, too, is a passion of Bill’s.  His parents  loved music and there was always plenty of it in the house. His dad played trumpet and piano, and his brothers played drums and organ.  Bill tried them all, but fell in love with the piano, and the sounds of jazz.  He found people who encouraged him and taught him to love music: Ray Bozenski and Richard Fragomeni, among many. In college, he decided that jazz would be his area of study. He made a living playing jazz piano in Albany, N.Y. His music won some national awards, but he quickly decided he wasn’t going to be good enough to make it big, so Bill kept it as a hobby and side job.  He currently plays 50-60 performances a year with A Fine Line.  They will be releasing their second CD, Conversations, this Fall.

A Low Point

The life of a philosopher is a good life, but it’s not the highest paid among university professors.  With four kids it wasn’t always easy financially.   At times, he thought he could be doing something to make his family a little more financially secure. And sometimes it’s hard to tell his own children what to do after college. Part of him wants to tell them what he was told by his father, but then he wonders if he should tell them to “get a job with a good salary, and make sure you have health insurance.” A second low or risky point in Bill’s career was when he decided to work with Jackson on the fringes of professional philosophy, forsaken the usual path of the academic philosopher.  Especially before he received tenure.  But it’s all worked out.

Aha Moment

The way Aldo Leopold connected philosophy and the natural world gave Bill his calling, but meeting Wes Jackson, and after bringing him to Clarkson’s campus to talk, Vitek was hooked on thinking deeply about social transformation that begins with our food systems. Jackson’s a “big picture guy. And fearless.”  Jackson  inspired Bill to think big and not to worry about pleasing  those in his profession that always kept the focus small and narrow.

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Bill’s work now  

Bill has been talking and writing about new ways of imaging humans and nature in a living and creative universe. He’s focused on the “ism’s” of the world: the big systems of religion, government, economics that shape what we think before we even know we’re thinking. Whether it’s religion or capitalism, we become part of a community which tells us what’s wrong or right. We live in a world that leads us to believe we can live in it and do whatever we want. So now we find ourselves on an overheated planet with lots of problems. So Bill is trying to help get the world out of that jam by using philosophy to rethink our major assumptions, the ones that all “ism’s” have but that we rarely see. Not unlike Jackson’s work on reimagining agriculture, Bill is looking at how the big ideas in philosophy can feed our minds in a new and healthy way.

What’s challenging Bill now

The biggest challenges for a philosopher is to getting the attention of her/his audience, and then speaking in language that can be understood.  It’s a dangerous business.  Historically, philosophers have either been ignored or, worse, killed.  Remember Socrates? But new ideas keep the world running, and the philosopher has to make efforts to engage audiences.  Bill works on his skills in the classroom and when he has the chance to speak to the public. It’s challenging work, but Bill is optimistic about our chances.  He sees the changes we need to make going on all around the world; especially young people who are eager to think and act differently and with the planet in mind.  “If you take the long view, societies have been in similar jams before.  The creative energies of the universe are on our side, and we can see them at work in a new generation of thinkers and leaders. It’s an exciting time to be a philosopher!”

Lightning Round

Books Bill Recommends: Wes Jackson’s book: [easyazon_block add_to_cart=”default” align=”center” asin=”1582437009″ cloaking=”default” layout=”right” localization=”default” locale=”US” nofollow=”default” new_window=”default” tag=”purposerockst-20″] Another book which will even be used in his classroom this Fall: [easyazon_block add_to_cart=”default” align=”center” asin=”1584201436″ cloaking=”default” layout=”left” localization=”default” locale=”US” nofollow=”default” new_window=”default” tag=”purposerockst-20″] Helpful Habit: A habit of walking without things in your ears or talking on your phone.  Pay attention and make eye contact with the world. Helpful Person: His 10th grade teacher, Walter Bydiark,  Also, his mom and dad. His dad who had ideas about what’s right and wrong; his mom who loves unconditionally. Great teachers all around. Internet Resource(s): Favorite websites: It’s all about the philosophy of being grateful. For environmental stuff and neat articles, check that site out. What’s Your Purpose? To make the world a little more beautiful.

Where to follow Bill

Bill’s webpage:

Find his music on Facebook at A Fine Line Jazz

Parting Words

“When you’re washing dishes, wash the dishes.” Be present in whatever you’re doing.

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