VIDEO: Talbot Brewer, “What Good Are The Humanities?”

On Wednesday, December 14, 2016, at the University of South Carolina Law School, our scholar and philosopher Talbot Brewer, gave the talk, “What Good are the Humanities?”

The president of University of South Carolina, Harris Pastides, delivered the introductory address, and a Q&A followed the talk. To view the talk, click the image below or go to http://virtue.uchicago.edu/brewer.

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talbTalbot Brewer is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Virginia and a Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life. He specializes in ethics and political philosophy, with particular attention to moral psychology and Aristotelian ethics. He is the author of numerous essays, including “Reflections on the Cultural Commons” (in Nestor García, ed, Being Human in a Consumerist Society, 2014), “Two Pictures of Practical Thinking” (in Jost and Wuerth, eds, Perfecting Virtue, 2011), “Is Welfare an Independent Good?” (Social Philosophy & Policy 26, 2009), “Three Dogmas of Desire” (in Chappell, ed, Values and Virtues, 2007), “Virtues We Can Share: A Reading of Aristotle’s Ethics” (Ethics 115, 2005), “Two Kinds of Commitments (And Two Kinds of Social Groups)” (Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 66, 2003), and “Maxims and Virtues” (The Philosophical Review 3, 2002). He has been a visiting professor in the Harvard University Philosophy Department and has authored two books, the most recent of which is The Retrieval of Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2009). He is currently at work on two books, one on Aristotelian action theory and its intersection with ethics, and another on a phenomenon that he calls “tragedies of the cultural commons”.

“Finding camaraderie and illumination from others in the more treacherous passages of human life” – Interview with Talbot Brewer

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Ida Noyes Hall Auditorium at the University of Chicago – photo by Chris Smith
Margaret “Peggy” Ryan Binette is Associate Director of Public Relations for the Office of Communications & Public Affairs at the University of South Carolina; she conducted this interview with Talbot Brewer in advance of his lecture “What Good Are The Humanities?” on December 14, 5:30pm at the University of South Carolina.

Peggy Binette: How can the humanities contribute to happiness and meaningfulness in life – regardless of socioeconomic position?

Talbot Brewer: There is at best a tenuous connection between the humanities and happiness. Serious engagement with literature and art does of course have its pleasures, and we professors would be falling down on the job if our students did not come to know these pleasures. But If you went to a production of, say, Shakespeare’s Othello in hopes of making yourself happier, you’d be making a serious mistake. Seeing Othello can be, and indeed ought to be, a crushing experience. But while you probably would not walk out of the theater brimming with happiness, you might walk out with a deeper understanding of intimate love and the potentially deadly pathologies to which it exposes us. Whether such understanding makes life more meaningful is a complicated question. I think that it does. I would not wish to deny that someone who has never learned to read or write, and never learned to appreciate art, can have an extremely meaningful life, nor would I wish to rule out the possibility that someone with an advanced degree in philosophy or literature might lead a superficial existence. Still, I do think that when pursued in the right spirit, the humanities can deepen one’s experience of life, and that is an enormous gift.

PB: In this chaotic and ever-demanding world, how important is it for people to reflect on the concepts, virtues and values espoused in the humanities?

talbTB: We have devised a world in which mercenary words and images press upon us during almost every waking hour. When amid this clamor of manipulative messages we suddenly encounter something quite different, something called literature, or art, or philosophy, it is not easy to adjust our habits of attention and open ourselves fully to this newcomer. The cultural environment has not encouraged the traits required for proper engagement with the humanities: the habit of sustained attention and of patience and generosity in interpretation; the openness to finding camaraderie and illumination from others in the more treacherous passages of human life; the expressive conscience that cannot rest until it lights upon exactly the right words for one’s own incipient thoughts. By creating a space within which we can nurture such habits of mind and put them to their proper use, we make room for a kind of self-cultivation that has become increasingly rare, despite all the lip service we pay to authentic self-expression.
PB: What is the one point or thought you want anyone who attends your talk to take away?

TB: Some have tried to ground the value of the humanities in their contribution to economic productivity. Others have tried to ground the value of the humanities in their contribution to the health of our democratic institutions. Neither approach seems to me very convincing. What drives so many friends of the humanities to these two options, I believe, is the thought that if the humanities do not boost the economy or strengthen the polity, then their value must be an entirely individual matter, hence not a genuine public concern. This way of framing the issue trades on a mistakenly atomistic conception of human culture. The attainment of a sophisticated level of articulacy about human life both depends upon, and contributes to, a background cultural sophistication about human life. When it comes to the contest between depth and superficiality, we are in it together. At a time when our metastasizing material productivity poses a serious threat to the future of human life on this planet, perhaps we would be well advised to put less emphasis on economic growth and more emphasis on this entirely sustainable shared pursuit, to which the humanities can make an important contribution.

“What Good Are The Humanities?” on December 14, 5:30pm at the University of South Carolina.

University of South Carolina to host lecture on the relationship of the humanities and happiness Dec. 14

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Talbot Brewer at the December 2015 working group meeting of the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

 

How do the humanities matter in a chaotic 21st century? That’s the question one of the nation’s top philosophers and ethics experts will tackle in a public talk Dec. 14 at the University of South Carolina.

 

Talbot Brewer, a professor from the University of Virginia, will speak at 5:30 p.m. in the School of Law auditorium. His talk, titled “What Good are the Humanities?” is part of a research project that is led in part by the University of South Carolina and brings together scholars from around the world to study the facts that lead to happiness and the meaning of life. The event, which is free and open to the public and includes a reception. Advance registration is requested.

 

Brewer says it’s not the world’s pace or its constant barrage of words and images that keeps people from finding meaning in literature, art or philosophy. It’s the struggle for people to adjust and sustain their attention and quiet their minds.

 

“By creating a space within that we can nurture such habits of mind and put them to their proper use, we make room for a kind of self-cultivation that has become increasingly rare, despite all the lip service we pay to authentic self-expression,” says Brewer, a professor and chairman of UVA’s philosophy department and a specialist in ethics, political philosophy and moral psychology.

 

Connecting with human emotion and the human condition through art, theater or literature can give meaning to one’s own life, Brewer says.

 

“When pursued in the right spirit, the humanities can deepen one’s experience of life, and that is an enormous gift,” he says.

 

That gift is the basis for the research project, “Virtue, Happiness and the Meaning of Life,” which is co-directed by Carolina philosopher Jennifer Frey and University of Chicago philosopher Candace Vogler . It is funded by a $2.1 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

 

For more information about the research, visit the project website. For more information about Brewer’s talk, contact Frey at frey.jenn@gmail.com.


Margaret “Peggy” Ryan Binette is Associate Director of Public Relations for the Office of Communications & Public Affairs at the University of South Carolina.

 

December 14, 2016 | Talbot Brewer, “What Good are the Humanities?” | Streaming Live @ University of South Carolina

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Wednesday, December 14, 2016, 5:30pm  | University of South Carolina Law School, 701 Main Street, Columbia

Please join us, or watch livestreamed https://virtue.uchicago.edu/brewer at 5:30 EST/4:30CST.

Talbot Brewer, a professor from the University of Virginia, and a scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life, will speak at 5:30 p.m. at the University of South Carolina in the School of Law auditorium. His talk, titled “What Good are the Humanities?” is part of a research project that brings together scholars from around the world to study the facts that lead to happiness and the meaning of life. The event, which is free and open to the public and includes a reception.

The president of University of South Carolina, Harris Pastides, will deliver an introductory address. A reception will follow the Q & A. Free and open to the public. RSVP requested.

Brewer says it’s not the world’s pace or its constant barrage of words and images that keeps people from finding meaning in literature, art or philosophy. It’s the struggle for people to adjust and sustain their attention and quiet their minds.

“By creating a space within that we can nurture such habits of mind and put them to their proper use, we make room for a kind of self-cultivation that has become increasingly rare, despite all the lip service we pay to authentic self-expression,” says Brewer, a professor and chairman of UVA’s philosophy department and a specialist in ethics, political philosophy and moral psychology.

Connecting with human emotion and the human condition through art, theater or literature can give meaning to one’s own life, Brewer says.

“When pursued in the right spirit, the humanities can deepen one’s experience of life, and that is an enormous gift,” he says.

This event is made possible by a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation for the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life, and co-sponsored by the Center for Value, Law, and the Humanities at the University of South Carolina.

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For more information, contact: Valerie Wallace, Associate Director, Communications
Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life
vwallace@uchicago.edu

Interview with Adam Omelianchuk, our new graduate research assistant

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Where are you from?

The Twin Cities of Minnesota.

What drew you to want to work with our project?

There are two things that come to mind. First, there is my long-standing interest in virtue ethics as a normative system that can potentially supply what I call a “thick” view of the good life. What I mean by that is wonderfully illustrated in C.S. Lewis’ little parable of the voyage of the ships, which represent the three concerns any picture of the good life should address:

The voyage will be a success only, in the first place, if the ships do not collide and get in one another’s way; and, secondly, if each ship is seaworthy and has her engines in good order. As a matter of fact, you cannot have either of these two things without the other. If the ships keep on having collisions they will not remain seaworthy very long. On the other hand, if their steering gears are out of order they will not be able to avoid collisions… But there is one thing we have not yet taken into account. We have not asked where the fleet is try to get to… however well the fleet sailed, its voyage would be a failure if it were meant to reach New York and actually arrived at Calcutta.

Lewis’ dissatisfaction with modern ethics, and one that I share, is that the view of the good life is too thin. That is to say, modern ethics tends to care chiefly about not hurting others and secondarily about achieving harmony within the individual; nonetheless, they tend to leave aside altogether the idea that there is some purpose or end for which human life is meant to satisfy. But the sort of research involved with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life does not intend to leave out the third question, even if answering it proves to be notoriously difficult. Hence, my interest.

Secondly, there is my recently formed interest in Elizabeth Anscombe and her theory of intention. It is a long story about how I became interested in her, but the short of it is that I’ve found that her notion of voluntary action directed by reason to some end or goal to be ethically richer than the common tendency to reduce our actions to causal relations between different events of physical activity or inactivity.
So when Professor Jennifer Frey [Principal Investigator with our project], who is on my dissertation committee, kindly asked me to be her research assistant, I jumped at the chance.


Tell me more about your research.

My research primarily focuses on the issues relevant to moral status, specifically, the properties by virtue of which something is made morally considerable when judging a practice or action to be permissible or not. This concern motivates further research in metaphysics, particularly in the areas of human ontology and personal identity as well as general moral theory. The concrete results of this research has already yielded published articles on topics ranging from the wrongness of killing to the equality people share with one another by virtue of being human. Currently, I am writing my dissertation on what makes killing for organs wrong, which in turn, results in a defense of the so-called ‘dead-donor’ rule in transplant ethics. In my view, the rule says if the surgery used to retrieve the relevant organs would kill the patient, we ought not perform it. Thus, I seek to explain why killing for organs is wrong even if the donor consents to be killed.
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As I have come to work out of my views, I have found that contemporary moral values such as “do no harm” and “respect people’s autonomy” to be far too weak for making sense of our most deeply held moral beliefs, which are often shaped by concepts of sanctity and dignity. No doubt, making sense of these concepts is difficult, but the view I am attracted to currently is one that is influenced by Thomistic and Aristotelian streams of thought: different kinds of things are to be distinguished by their potentialities, and the non-instrumental worth things possess involves the ends to which they are directed.

What do you like to do outside of academia?

I like to read fiction, keep tabs on cool new cars, participate in the life of my local church, cook a nice meal for my wife, and play with my two-year old daughter.

Adam Omelianchuk is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at the University of South Carolina, and a graduate assistant with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.