Noted philosopher talks character
Professor Daniel Robinson, a member of the Oxford University philosophy faculty, gave this year’s Eunice Belgum memorial lectures on Monday, Sept. 23. Robinson is also a distinguished professor emeritus at Georgetown University and a prolific author and editor. His lectures were titled “Consciousness Again” and “Character.”
How did you come to join the philosophy faculty at Oxford?
I had a sabbatical from Georgetown in 1990, and somebody in the philosophy department at Oxford asked if I’d like to give a course of lectures. It went very well, and they worked it out so I could do it for another year by having [Professor of Philosophy Charles Taliaferro] do it the first four weeks, and I’d do it the rest of the year. Afterward, I got a letter asking if I’d give my own lecture series, and then I was elected fellow of the faculty in philosophy at Oxford.
What interests you about lecturing for a college student audience?
It is the undergraduate body that is going to shape the entire world. Graduate students will become highly specialized, but it’s that large body of bachelor’s students who will enter the foreign service, enter the world of commerce, the world of trade and entrepreneurial undertakings. Of the valuable things we’re in a position to collect, one of them is collected for the express purpose of giving it away, and that’s knowledge. I’ve always taken it as a distinct privilege to be able to learn things, put that learning into a more systematic form and then present it to students.
You earned your Ph.D. in neuropsychology. What initially sparked your interest in studying psychology?
As organs go – I speak with a prejudice here – but the brain is a lot more interesting than say the spleen, all due respect to people who study spleens. I went to Colgate [University], and I indicated that I found the brain an interesting subject, whereupon [my adviser] said, “You better take psychology.” In my little world, I was not sure nice people studied psychology. There seemed to be something tainted about the whole idea, so I said, “No, I’m interested in the brain,” and he said, “Well I’m putting you down for psychology.”
How do you think psychology interacts with philosophy, the field you teach in now?
You can’t devote yourself to a serious inquiry into brain function without getting involved in philosophy. For example, to what extent does brain pathology render one exempt from the demands of the law? Neurology drew me inexorably into the philosophy of law and the philosophy of mind. My academic life divides rather neatly into two periods of 25 years each. The first 25: How does it work? The second 25: What does it mean?
How do your lecture topics (consciousness, character) relate to your main interests in your fields?
Everybody, during waking hours, is walking around with consciousness. Normally we do not regard it as problematic, but what sort of entity is it? Is it something science can explain? Or is there something ineffable about it? Character, the Greek world thought it was destiny. It’s not something, at least on Aristotle’s account, that is given; it’s something that is made. The architecture of world you live in – the music you listen to, your quality of schooling, the kind of experiences you are presented with in childhood – shapes you all the time. Not to be cognizant of these influences is to be a passive product of them.
Moving from the U.S. to Oxford, what differences did you notice in the two countries’ university atmospheres?
They are totally different. Academic integrity is the term that comes to mind. The number of people [at Oxford] who are there because there isn’t any place on earth they want to be more…and are bringing a kind of innocence and high intellect to bear on vexing and enduring questions, is very different. A tutorial [one-on-one teaching session] at Oxford is not a chatroom. You come in every week with four or five pages, and [the professor] will have questions about what you’re writing. By the time you’re finished [with a degree], you have probably done 1,000 to 1,500 pages like that.
You have also written or edited more than 40 books. Which is your favorite side of your career, teaching or writing? Why?
The teaching. When you write a book, it’s a lengthy letter to a stranger you’ll probably never meet. When you teach a class, it’s an engagement with someone who’s counting on you, and you’re counting on her to do something of value, not only to the student, but through the student to a lot of other people. No matter how well-planned the course is, it’s not an entirely predictable thing. The sudden question from the just-18-year-old who doesn’t know you’re a great man and asks toward the end of the course why anyone would be interested in this – that’s what you live for.