Rebecca Goldstein on the Dialogue Between Philosophy and English

By Jordan Williamson

Rebecca Goldstein, a visiting professor in the Departments of English and Philosophy, moderated a First Wednesday symposium titled “What I Am Doing, and Why: A Dialogue between Philosophy and English” on March 1. Prof. Goldstein, a philosopher who writes novels and has taught in both philosophy departments and MFA programs, drew on her unique position in both disciplines to organize a discussion of how English and philosophy might complement each other. More broadly, though, this discussion considered how disciplines interact generally and the benefits and limitations of the disciplinary model.

Panelists included Prof. Clifford Siskin and Prof. Lytle Shaw of the English Department and Prof. Tim Maudlin and Prof. Anja Jauernig from the Philosophy Department. Prof. Goldstein chose to start discussion with a “brief and bold” statement of purpose. She sees intellectual work as addressing broad concerns: “What is, and what matters?” Science can tell us what is, while the humanities aim more at what matters. For Prof. Goldstein, the notion that “we are creatures of matter for whom the question of what matters really matters” gives purpose and urgency to the work of both science and the humanities as uniquely human functions. This view also, of course, necessitates cooperation between disciplines. No one subject or methodology can hope to satisfy fully our inquiry into the nature of reality and the place of humanity in it.

The panelists all, to some extent, organize their work around questions of disciplinary interaction. Prof. Siskin’s description of his current work centered on the organization of the humanities into disciplines, which has produced a structure he described as analogous to “homes and neighborhoods.” There is, for instance, the “home” of English within the neighborhood of the humanities. This model, according to Prof. Siskin, has worked to produce a body of knowledge on the subject of culture, but he wonders if the “success” of the model might necessitate “succession,” or its replacement with a new organization of the disciplines.

Prof. Shaw’s work perhaps most clearly addressed the topic of dialogue between philosophy and English. He spoke on the relationship between literature and theory. With the advent of critical theory in the 1960’s, literature has often been attended to as a “passive field of examples,” but Prof. Shaw’s work on coterie poetry, for instance, attempts to discover moments when literature does not map exactly onto philosophy, and instead has the potential to deform theoretical models and invert the power relation between theory and the disciplines it takes as a subject.

Though he teaches in the Philosophy Department, Prof. Maudlin’s work focuses on the foundations of the discipline of physics, as well as the implications of the models physicists develop. Within physics, these foundations and implications are often neglected in favor of what Prof. Maudlin terms the “shut up and calculate” approach, which assumes that the actual work of physics is so difficult that attention to much beyond the calculations quickly becomes overwhelming. Without this attention, though, physics runs the risk of becoming almost a purely mathematical logic. Work like Prof. Maudlin’s grounds physics in real-world relevance while also making it accessible to those outside the discipline.

Prof. Jauernig’s work focuses on the history of philosophy. She orients her practice of philosophy around understanding rather than knowing, an approach that “maps logical space to see ways the world could be,” and establishes connections between these possible ways. The historical approach, she says, keeps the discipline from continually mapping out the same ground again and again. By clearly staking out where philosophy has already been, the historian of philosophy can show where the discipline should go next. Prof. Jauernig’s work, then, serves a refining purpose, which allows philosophers to pursue what she and Aristotle call one of the “characteristic functions” of humans: reason.

Although the poster for the event situated the discussion in a moment when the humanities find themselves “under assault,” there were varying levels of anxiety in the room about the states of philosophy and English. Prof. Goldstein suggested that the current political moment might require a special response from the humanities, while Prof. Siskin wondered what might succeed the success of the humanities. One audience member, on the other hand, commented that he considers the current moment a uniquely promising one for his field, neurophilosophy, thanks to advances in neuroscience that expand the scope of his studies. Whatever comes next, though, there seemed to be at least some agreement in the room that a willingness to engage in dialogue between the disciplines can only benefit the humanities as a whole.