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Faculty in Focus: Charles Taliaferro

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Some may refer to Charles Taliaferro as eccentric. The unkempt hair, untucked dress shirt and occasional lightsaber accessory can sometimes make the professor of philosophy seem somewhat perplexing. Anyone can recognize his boisterous laugh or frenzied jazz hands, but who really is Taliaferro?

Taliaferro was born and raised in New York. He found philosophy in a personal place of hardship, thinking of it as a world where people can have real conversations. Taliaferro followed this passion to Goddard College, where he majored in philosophy and literature. He went on to collect master’s degrees at the University of Rhode Island and Harvard before obtaining his Ph.D. at Brown. Shortly afterward, he became a professor at St. Olaf and never left.

Besides being known as a lover of shelties and occasionally seeing purple unicorns, Taliaferro is renowned in the philosophy world. He has authored or co-authored over 20 books and published with philosophers including Richard Swinburne, Stewart Goetz and William Lane Craig.

Taliaferro most frequently writes on theology, aesthetics, friendship and love. What truly inspires him is human experience and connection and how exactly we relate to the world. Human beings live, laugh, love, hate, desire, cry, fear and die. Taliaferro believes that philosophy allows us to examine our circumstances more critically and live intentionally. By pondering our existence, we can get to know the concepts that enrich this life such as the good, the true and the beautiful. He is prominently influenced by thinkers like Plato, Descartes and Murdoch.

The classes that Taliaferro teaches reflect his interest in metaphysics and value theory. Every fall, he offers both Philosophical Theology and Aesthetics, classes so popular that there are usually over 50 students in each section despite a cap of 35. Two of the books in those courses, both titled “A Beginner’s Guide,” are written by Taliaferro himself and help provide a short introduction to the topic at hand. In the spring he teaches Environmental Ethics, a favorite among seniors looking to fulfill their Ethical Issues and Normative Perspectives (EIN) credit.

Students who have taken a class from Taliaferro seem to enjoy its unique format. Instead of having exams or quizzes, each Taliaferro class demands two 10-page papers, a number of short response papers and one creative final. Legends abound as to what exactly has been the best creative final, but some of his personal favorites include students building a coffin, some performing a eulogy and others worshipping him like a deity.

Besides these core classes, Taliaferro is currently teaching a senior philosophy seminar on Iris Murdoch, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Cornel West. He also has offered colorful independent studies such as art in film, magic and illusion and the philosophy of humor. It’s safe to say that a course with Taliaferro is never boring.

Even with the constant responsiblities of writing books and articles, grading long papers and attending conferences, Taliaferro finds a way to have some time left over for his hobbies. He enjoys venturing into the world of fantasy and pop culture in order to apply and explore philosophical concepts to less-emphasized arenas. Some of the works that he finds the most enthralling include the Harry Potter series (which he is re-reading right now), “Lord of the Rings,” “Star Wars” and “The Princess Bride.” Students who might not have had a strong interest in philosophy have credited his passion for popular work with galvanizing their passion for the discipline.

Taliaferro is known for being one of the most accessible professors and is willing to work with students to co-author scholarly, publishable articles as well as attend professional conferences. He enjoys seeing students develop as writers, especially in a realm like pop culture where their peers have an interest in the topic. He says that fantasy and fiction help demonstrate ideas that are impossible or inconceivable in our world. It’s just that we can get distracted by the bizarre creatures or shiny objects.

Take a class with Taliaferro. Who knows, if you do he might just introduce you to his dog Pip and give you a free ride to Minneapolis.

squires@stolaf.edu