David S. Oderberg is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Reading and editor of Ratio. His chief interest is metaphysics, with a major interest in moral philosophy. He is currently working on a book on the metaphysics of good and evil.
For the first ever Wiley Humanities Festival, David was kind enough answer our questions on his origin story and why he thinks the humanities matter. Read on to see what he had to say.
How do you feel education in the humanities has shaped your life, your identity, the way you see the world, the way you interact with others and process human experiences?
The clue is in the name, of course. The humanities cover a wide spectrum of human activities, and how it affects your life depends on what parts of it you study. For me, philosophy (of course), history, politics and languages have been of most enduring interest over the years. Speaking generally, they have contributed vitally to my trying to understand the world – the sweep of human events, the trajectory of human history, our common human nature, the potential of humankind for greatness… Education in humanities, at its best, furnishes you with a stock of knowledge and thought essential to understanding the world around you.
There is debate in the academic world on the utility of studying the humanities; some advocate that it needn’t be useful and/or applied to be justified as a field of study. What are your thoughts on this matter?
I agree unqualifiedly with those who deny that utility is essential to the value of the humanities for society, at least if utility is measured in terms of GDP points or some artificial idea of Impact (aka taxpayer ‘bang for the buck’). Both the humanities and the sciences have their applied ends and their pure, highly theoretical ends. You don’t hear too many people saying pure maths or theoretical physics needs to be useful to have value. So why the humanities? To be sure, pure maths and theoretical physics do sometimes result (maybe decades or more later) in social benefits due to the discovery of new applications, but the same goes for the humanities. History can be put to good use making evidence-based predictions about future events, political science gives rise to new ideas in the policy arena, and so on. The basic, totally pure work in logic of early 20th century philosophers was indispensable to the development of computing and artificial intelligence (as such work still is).
In the humanities, social benefits (or at least impact on society, for good or ill) can take centuries to appear. It can’t be measured in a government’s annual budget. The humanities contribute over long stretches of time to our cultural capital, the wealth of ideas and knowledge that make a society what it is. You can’t measure the impact of English literature on the economic welfare of the UK or USA, for example. But can you imagine either society without a literary heritage?
In any case, no humanities discipline needs to justify itself in terms of social usefulness, at least in some relatively narrow sense. Why should it? Now, whether government should subsidise the humanities, and to what extent, is another matter. There might be all sorts of good reasons for limiting this that have nothing to do with GDP. But the greatness of human endeavour, which we find in the humanities at its best, justifies itself.
Was there any kind of defining moment where you determined you wanted to be a career scholar in the humanities? Please tell us about it. Did you have a favorite professor, course, or work you studied?
Well, I pretty much determined to become a philosopher around the age of 16. I’m not sure if that’s young or old compared to my colleagues, though it would be interesting to know. I recall one of my high school teachers saying in a school report that I was destined for an academic career. Also, humanities were my strength in high school rather than science, so putting two and two together… In addition, I had another high school teacher, in English literature, who was an inspiration. He dropped philosophical thoughts into his classes here and there, and as an English teacher he was a true humanities man – showing us the greatness of literature, as well as art, music, and in general the ‘humane’ side of intellectual work.
But the true defining moments/people were my brother and uncle. My brother studied philosophy and law at the University of Melbourne, which I did as well. His wife studied law and French, which I’m sure rubbed off on me since I also did a degree in French. I have vivid memories of my brother talking about John Stuart Mill, and of his having belonged to the De Morgan Society (the student philosophy club, named after the great logician). He liked talking philosophy, long after his graduation when I was then a teenager. I recall him saying some things about Descartes, and remember later talking to a school friend about scepticism and what have you.
At the same time, I had an uncle who emigrated to the States in the early 1960s, having fallen in with Theosophy (Madame Blavatsky, ‘secret doctrine’, and all that). He became a senior person at the Theosophical Society HQ in Pasadena. We corresponded frequently throughout my teens and early twenties. He was a Platonist of sorts, like most theosophists, and wrote huge amounts to me about Plato, about the mind-body problem, recent research on the brain, and much else. I received a substantial dose of philosophy from him through the correspondence.
So, between some school influences, my uncle, and my brother, it looks in retrospect somewhat inevitable that I would become a philosopher – a decision I’ve never regretted.
What are some opportunities and challenges you’ve experienced as a humanities scholar? Where do you see humanities education going?
Being an academic is still – just – a great profession to be in, despite all the pressures on universities to contribute to the government’s bottom line, and all the political correctness that – mainly in the USA but also in the UK – makes the free exchange of ideas impossible. In terms of my own career, rather than with respect to the overall academic environment, the main challenge has been to stay focused on what drives me, which is love of the discipline and developing my research in the pursuit of truth and understanding.
I enjoy teaching immensely, and my students seem to think I’m pretty good at it, but for me teaching is an adjunct to research. I want my students to love the subject, even if they have no desire at all to pursue it beyond their BA, and to see why I love it. But my love for it is far less about communication than about satisfying my own need to understand the world. One can be a good teacher/lecturer in all sorts of ways; there is no template. For me, it’s about students seeing philosophy as the effort to understand reality at its deepest. I try to give a sense of this in my lectures, but ultimately it’s about what goes on paper (or, more often, online!) as the result of hard work thinking about us and our world. Even publication, although communication to peers is part of what it’s all about, is not the driving force for me. I might well write it all down even if I was the last philosopher on earth.
As an editor of Ratio, where do you see the journal fitting into the humanities landscape?
Ratio, whose editorship I took over 4 years ago, is a top-20 general philosophy journal, and has always been highly respected. I stay true to its historic remit, which is to publish first-rate, rigorous academic philosophy in the analytic tradition, across a wide gamut of sub-disciplines, in articles that are not overly long, generally not overly technical, and are written to be of interest to philosophers who are not experts in the specific topic at hand.
As such, I see Ratio as having a vital role in academic philosophy, even if there are other journals with similar missions. There has always been a ‘humane’ side to the journal, inasmuch as previous editors have been more sympathetic to articles that are accessible, well written, on inherently interesting topics across the philosophical spectrum. That’s why highly technical articles, unless they serve a wider purpose, are not usually published; nor, generally, are replies to other authors, articles on topics that just happen to be ‘hot’ at the time, pieces that talk about A’s response to B’s interpretation of C’s critique of D – as opposed to articles making some sort of independent contribution to a topic.
In addition, since I took over I have made it a point that every issue of Ratio contain articles both at the theoretical and at the practical ends of philosophy. Put more bluntly, every issue of Ratio will contain at least one article on ethics, preferably more, and preferably at least one on ethical theory and one on applied ethics.
Do you have any advice for young people learning humanities and considering specializing in any of its disciplines?
I would say, first of all: look into yourself. Academia is not just another career, it’s a vocation. So if you want to pursue a humanities subject professionally, you need to know whether you really do have the love of that subject as an abiding part of your nature. Can you see yourself studying it for the rest of your life? Or better, can you imagine life without studying it? If you pass that test, you need to know whether you have the energy and stomach for the long path to an academic career, with nothing like a guarantee of a permanent job at the end of it. You need to be prepared for disappointment and to have what it takes to keep trying. And I suppose you shouldn’t forget a key question: are you any good at that subject? There are indicators of this, such as university grades, references, publications, peer opinion…but you also need to try to be honest with yourself.
If you are younger, and not sure whether to study a humanities subject in the first place, I would advise you to read, think, and talk. What interests you? What are you good at? What do you like talking about? What books are on your bedside table? (If there aren’t any, and there’s no iPad with iBooks, I can’t help you…) I would advise you not to be told by anyone that ‘there’s no job in it’, or ‘it’s a waste of time’, or ‘nobody will understand what you’re talking about’, and so on. You shouldn’t be thinking about any of this if you’re about to go to college. It says a lot about our society that such questions even get asked of young people about to embark on such a formative period of their lives.
In general, and with life itself, not just humanities, my cliched advice is: do what you love and do what you’re good at. They’re highly likely to be the same thing.
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