Humanities has formal advantages over natural sciences: Taliaferro

January 29, 2011

TEHRAN -- Charles Taliaferro, professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College, says, “I think the Humanities does have some formal advantages over the natural sciences.”

To support his idea, Taliaferro says, “In part this is because questions about the purpose of the natural sciences is itself a philosophical question, and so is the question about the ultimate nature of the natural sciences.”
Taliaferro made the remarks in interview with the Mehr News Agency conducted by Hossein Kaji and Javad Heirannia.
Following is the text of the interview:
Q: Humanities does not have formal advantages over natural sciences in our era, why?
A: I think the Humanities does have some formal advantages over the natural sciences. In part this is because questions about the purpose of the natural sciences is itself a philosophical question, and so is the question about the ultimate nature of the natural sciences. Why conduct scientific inquiry and into what areas of the natural world? Is scientific inquiry our best mode of producing reliable beliefs about the world? Does the scientific study of human nature give us reason to believe materialism is true? Does science tend to support or challenge religious conceptions of the cosmos? And so on.
These are all philosophical questions and they require a philosophy of science in order to forge answers to them. And philosophy is part of the humanities, if not at the very core of the humanities.
Q: Why have you chosen humanities for your specialty?
A: Because of the comprehensibility of the humanities. In philosophy, one may and in fact one must come to terms with understanding and assessing the relationship of all other forms of inquiry: mathematics, the natural and social sciences, history, theology, and so on. In the humanities in general, and philosophy in particular, one is having to constantly think through and assess the general state of inquiry.
Q: What are your reasons for studying your discipline?
A: Partly my chief reason is the one I have already spoken about: the comprehensibility and even the inescapability of the humanities in a full, mature education or outlook. If one sought to do away with the humanities and only promote the natural sciences, this would paradoxically be because we have all adopted a philosophical outlook.
We would have wound up shutting down philosophical departments and inquiry in the name of a commitment to our own supreme philosophy that only the natural sciences are worthy of pursuit. This would be profoundly unwise and not just paradoxical, as history has established that times of cultural flourishing (and one needs a flourishing culture to sustain the practice of science) involve times when there is education and opportunities for citizens to engage in their own philosophical reflection. This may be seen in the golden age of philosophy in ancient Greece or at the time of Cicero in ancient Rome, in the Renaissance in the Florentine Academy, in Britain in the 17th century with the Cambridge Platonists, early American political debate in the 1780s, and so on.
Q: Do you agree with this point that paper (and not book) is the main format of writing in humanities? Why?
A: In general, the format of the paper has great prominence today because of the prestige and powerful opportunities provided by conferences.
Even at conferences when books are featured --for example at a session in which an author meets critics-- the critics offer their observations in the form of papers and the author replies in the format of a paper. Books do have a huge advantage, however. One of the more common objections to a paper is that the author did not address this or that objection, but we all know that given the limits of a paper it is simply impossible to anticipate all objections. In a book format, an author can take on more objections and develop more sustained, interconnected arguments.
Q: How do you write your papers?
A: I often write them out by hand rather than begin with a computer, as this compels me to write more slowly and more reflectively. Once satisfied with the main body of the text, I will then seek to edit and re-edit a version on line. More generally, I rarely begin writing without having the argument (or central thesis) worked out. I find writing scholarship to be hugely rewarding and feel it is always an honor when anyone reads and responds to one's work.
Q: Are your papers based on your lectures?
A: I rarely lecture, except when invited by a university or institute to do so. I much prefer the dialogue or conversation model of practicing philosophy. In such a format, I think that each participant can help raise the quality of the other's contribution. A good exchange is a good collaboration in which (ideally) all parties can be enriched.
Still, I expect most other professors use their lectures to establish chapters in a projected book, which is one of the reasons why Oxford and Cambridge University scholars often write books with eight chapters. There are eight weeks in a term, and I wager that is why each lecture counts as each chapter.
Q: What were your mainsprings for entering into your discipline?
A: I was drawn to philosophy as a boy for two reasons, one perhaps rather self-interested and the other more noble. I was the youngest of four brothers, and my three older brothers were constantly trying to make me feel rather dim witted. Much of this was quite innocent and not out of the ordinary, but at about 13 years old I discovered that there was a field (philosophy) that specialized in arguments, reasoning and logic. Diving into philosophy gave me some tools to help defend myself from my older brothers!
Secondly, I was stunned to learn that the area of philosophy grew out of the love of wisdom (the literal meaning of ""philosophy"" from ""philo"" meaning ""love"" and ""sophia"" meaning ""wisdom"" in Greek). The first philosophy book I read was William Durrant's The Story of Philosophy. While not perfect (the middle ages and Islam are completely ignored), Durrant made the history of ideas exciting, and that excitement has not left me.
Have those mainsprings remained yet? I have since become friends with my brothers and so I no longer practice philosophy in self-defense from my family! But I do remain enormously captured by the beauty and energy of the history and current field of philosophy. There is a lively international community of philosophers all working on related themes, and I find such collaboration and engagement to be one of the greatest joys.
Q: What are your main questions in your discipline?
A: What is there (metaphysics)? What can we know (epistemology)? What should we do (ethics)? How shall we govern (political philosophy)? And then lots of questions that are related to all of them such as ""Does God exist?"" which involves metaphysics and epistemology but comes under the heading of ""philosophy of religion."" ""What is truth?"" also involves metaphysics and epistemology but is sometimes considered a part of philosophy of language. Almost all the areas of philosophy historically are alive today. So, the arguments between Plato and Aristotle are still in play among contemporary Platonists and Aristotelians, and then there are Humeans, Kantians, and so on. There is a great pluralism in philosophy today that is refreshing and exciting.
Q: What is your definition of authentic thinking?
A: That is a most excellent question. If there can be ""authentic thinking,"" this suggests that there can be thinking that is inauthentic. Probably in the twentieth century the philosophers who were most keen to expose what they thought was inauthentic thinking were those we now think of as existentialists: Sartre, Camus, and, going back further, Nietzshe and Kierkegaard. Each of these thinkers challenge us to question our confidence that we are honest and fair minded when, in actuality, we may be self-deceived or acting on motives that we fear to admit to others or ourselves. Authentic thinking seems fundamentally to be thinking that is honest and based (as nearly as we can manage) on integrity. Minimally this involves truth-telling and lack of deception (not claiming that an idea is your own when it is really someone else's), but more broadly authentic feelings means trying to think responsibly in terms of the values that have a claim on us, our community, and (more broadly still) the world at large. I am not thinking authentically about my community if I ignore its real needs.
Q: Why do we need to have authentic thinking in our time?
A: Because without honest, even fearlessly honest thinking we will not be able to engage in honest, even fearlessly honest communication. And in our time, when the means and power of communication is greater than ever before, we need to foreswear dishonest, deceptive language and thought. But ""authenticity"" is needed not just because we need honesty, but we need to responsibly (and thus authentically) respond to the values that surround us.
****Charles Taliaferro, professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College, is the author of Consciousness and the Mind of God Contemporary Philosophy of Religion, Evidence and Faith; Philosophy and Religion Since the Seventeenth Century, Dialogues About God, Philosophy of Religion, and The Golden Cord; A Short Book on Eternity. He has given lectures at Oxford, Cambridge, Columbia, the University of Chicago, Princeton, New York University, and elsewhere.
Highlight=Authentic thinking seems fundamentally to be thinking that is honest and based on integrity. I am not thinking authentically about my community if I ignore its real needs. ***