An Unexpected Role Model

Like many grad students, my initial impression of my professors (in this case Barbara Herrnstein Smith) was often of them as personalities. The gossipy comments, usually unkind, that help graduate students feel a little less powerless in a structure where they have little formal recognition and their futures are uncertain. As grad students, our lives might have felt up in the air, but we could at least feel morally superior, if often unkind, to those who instructed us.

At the time, though, my main impression of her was of an uncannily acute judge of character. (She, for instance, rightly called me on my strategy of being stupid-like-a-fox.) In retrospect, the unsettling observations with which she often stung students had a common theme: her impatience with anything that held us back as thinkers, especially if the thing holding us back was us

She taught the first “history of theory” class that I took, one in which I worked hard, but not smartly, learning almost in spite of myself. Years later I came back to her work because I was impatient with colleagues in other departments tendency to erect (cartoon) “postmodernist” straw men, usually as adjuncts to their own complacencies. Her book, Belief and Resistance: Dynamics of Contemporary Intellectual Controversy, was a great help to me.

Later, I found that I was reading her work again, this time in regard to biology and cognitive science. She’s grown on me as a thinker and a writer, which isn’t something I’d have predicted at all when I was her student. I thought she was sharp and perceptive, but that her interests had no overlap with mine at the time, which were centered on gender and sexuality.

It also wasn’t clear to me, other than an interest in biology and a love for a good argument, how her research had moved from axiology, the study of evaluation (i.e., what is good or bad), to topics like the cognitive science, or the relations between the humanities and the sciences.

I’ve recently had the chance to re-read part of Contingencies of Value, her book on axiology, and now have a clearer idea of how she got from A to B. Re-reading the book, I’ve been surprised to see how many of her later interests are embedded in her earlier work. So here is the arc that I see in her thought. Not a long characterization, but something I want to remember:

Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s early interests about whether it is possible to have objective judgments about taste lay the groundwork for her later inquiries into objectivity in science. Similarly her engagement with Kant’s notion of the faculties gave her a good background for her interest in recent cognitive science and the ways it diverges sharply from traditional philosophy of the mind. Finally, her interest in axiology gave her a natural facility in moving from questions about aesthetic values to questions about moral values and teleology.

I’ve just started her most recent book, Natural Reflections: Human Cognition at the Nexus of Science and Religion (Yale UP, 2010). If her past work is any indication, very few current positions will emerge unscathed. In that, she probably hasn’t changed. I certainly hope not.

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