[Day 9] Talk with professor – Dr. Rosental (part 1) – The differences in philosophers through time and impact of philosophers to the world (10 min read)

*Dr. Rosental is my lecturer in PHI 190: Introduction to Philosophy. Apart of being Associate Professor and Chair of Philosophy Department at Mercer University, he’s also the author of the book Lesson from Aquinas – A resolution of the problem of faith and reason.

Below is my 30-minutes interview with him. Because the interview is too long, I decide to break it into 2 parts. In part 1, we will get to know him, then we will discuss more about the differences between philosophers through time, and contribution of philosophers to world. Part 2 will contain more of his views about philosophers, his advice of book for the youth, and a discussion about current education system, including obligatory schooling, liberal arts, and college education. *

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Me: To start the interview, could you tell me a little bit about yourself?

Dr. Rosental: Well, I’m Dr. Rosental. I’m an associate professor and Chair of Philosophy Department. I’m also Director of the Ethics Leadership and Services Minor.

Me: How does it feel to be a professor in philosophy?

Dr. Rosental: I feel pretty good. Philosophy is one of the area that is really limited in job opportunities outside of being professor. I mean, philosophy is always good preparation for anything, but if you want to be a philosopher, there is almost no job except from professor. I felt in love with philosophy at some point in my education, pretty late. And, that’s what I wanted to do. Being a professor means that I get to be paid to do what I love to do, which is pretty great. Not too many people get to do that.

Me: Do you consider yourself a philosopher?

Dr. Rosental: I do. I guess there would be a division. I would draw a division between practical, real world, applied philosophy, philosophy that affect your day-to-day choices, the way you think, the way you act, and what you might call academic philosophy, philosophy of various of studies, research and all that. I prefer that division break down, that academic and practical. So I live the philosophy that I teach, and I try to teach philosophy in the way that are more living and practical.

Me: Do you think there are differences between philosophers in the past and current philosophers?

Dr. Rosental: I would say up to around 1900s, maybe a little bit earlier than that, not only for philosophy but also for all pursuits of knowledge like science, psychology, sociology. I think a lot of people that did that kind of work did it as part of a bigger picture, as pursuing knowledge, not just seeing themselves as philosopher or psychologist. They saw their roles as being individuals who try to figure out as much as they can do, and philosophy played a role in that. Today, we have divided those things. There are philosophers, scientists, psychologist and stuff like that. I think that is pretty common now, getting into division and discipline. In that aspect, I think philosophy is really different than it’s used to be like.

Me: I still cannot draw a line between the philosophers in the past and the current philosophers. Can you explore more on what it’s like in the past?

Dr. Rosental: For example, Newton, who lays the ground work for modern physics considers himself to be a natural philosopher.He’s the philosopher that focus on how the world works. He thought what he was doing was philosophy. Taken another example, William James, who wrote book on psychology and on religious experience considers himself to be a philosopher, even he wrote book we might traditionally consider to be psychology and sociology. There are a lot of figures like that. Today, you would not find that. It is common for a philosopher to work within philosophy department focus on issues that are limited into philosophy. They might talk about science or religion but they wouldn’t do science. That would not be very common. It would be unlikely for them to do so.

Me: So you said that before 1900, all scientists called themselves philosophers?

Dr. Rosental: Yes, and sometimes in 1800s, there were science. “Science” and “scientist” began to be used.

Me: Thank you. Let’s move to other topic. What is your Ph.D thesis and do you still keep your opinion that you stood on when you submitted the thesis?

Dr. Rosental: My thesis was on Thomas Aquinas, who is a very influential 13th century theologian. His emphasis was combining theology and Aristotle’s philosophy. For probably five or six hundred years, his approach was pretty dominant, at least in education that dealt with theology and philosophy. What I was interested in is how he combines faith and reason. As a Christian, he wants to synthesize theology and philosophy. He need to get faith and logic to work together. My thesis was on exactly how he accomplished that, synthesize and synergizing faith and reasons. My thesis is a historical interpretation. I evaluate some but mostly what I did is showing what he actually meant, explaining his views and support it. On that respect, I think I did a right interpretation, well supported, very defensible and I have sharpen a lot of evidences to make my case. I still feel pretty good about that.

Me: Just a side question, why don’t we have a chance to read Aquinas in our Introduction to Philosophy course?

Dr. Rosental: We could have. We read Anselm. Aquinas has different kind of proofs and we could read those instead. I was very close to including Aquinas but you know, there are a lot of materials in that class and  something need to get cut. Outside of those proofs, his materials are really difficult to read. It takes a little bit of setting up to understand what he is writing. He writes generally in what’s called “the disputed question” format, which was very common in Medieval era, but it’s also very difficult to read. It’s more about teaching style really, so I preserve Aquinas for more advance courses.

Me: There is an argument that modern philosophers are focusing on interpretation and digging the knowledge of philosophy in the past, not finding out new knowledge like they used to do. What do you think about it?

Furthermore into that topic, who are your favorite current philosophers and what are their point of views? The fact is, even I, a student who is interested in philosophy do not know the most prominent figure in philosophy now. If it was 50 years ago, I can list a few names, but not for the recent times.

Dr. Rosental: There’s a lot into that question. First of all, I think that it’s important for philosophy to study the past, because if you don’t know the past, you can’t learn from it. You just repeat the same mistakes or reinvent the wheels. Lots of time, I saw people who don’t do history of philosophy say something like “Look, I found a new thing that I put a lot of time and energy into it” and I’m like “That sounds just like Plato”. If you have read Plato, you wouldn’t have to do all of this and just jump into conclusion. But that’s one thing.

Second is I think there’s a lot of questions and issues that are brought up in philosophy need to be re-asked and re-answered over and over again. In one sense, we think of that society and civilization is progressing but in another sense, what never progress is that every time a child was born, you have to start from scratch. You have to start all over again, and as new child, you have to go through all answering and discovering the same questions and answers. They don’t get to load up all the answers in the kid’s brain. If all this going on and repeated, then you have a person. What somebody has to say 2.000 years ago can still be relevant today because kids grow up, ethical issues happen, and you have human interactions and things like that. So, I think history of philosophy is very important.

The next question is about does philosophy progress? Does it add to new knowledge? I think there’s a false assumption built in the question because generally, what happens is philosophers invent a new way to explore the world. When that new way becomes normal, procedural, its methods work out,its techniques, experimentation all work out, then they call themselves something else.

Me: Can you explore more on that?

Dr. Rosental: Sure. All scientist are philosophers. They start to call themselves scientists once the scientific methods became rigorous, formal, and reach a certain level of maturity. All psychologist are philosophers. All social science people are philosophers. To some extent, depending on how you see it, you can think that all mathematicians are philosophers. When they reach a point when they say “We have our own techniques”, then they call themselves something else. So it’s a little bit misleading to say philosophy don’t create anything, because philosophers are the one that are left after they created something, which we give them a new name like psychology, or sociology whatever.

Now that being said, I think it’s also not true to say that contemporary philosophy do not contribute to how we understand the world, to our storage of knowledge. I’ll mention a couple. One of my interest is the mind, what it is and how it works. A lot of development in understanding the mind came from neuron science, but a lot of those questions were guided and interpreted by philosophers. In some cases, the research project was developed by the philosophers and the scientist are like “Oh, we can test that”. The questions for the project were created by the philosophers. Philosophers are also needed to make senses of the data eventually. I think one person for example, who has been very prominent in his area is Daniel Dennet. He has done a lot to contribute to the advance, or understanding of the mind in the last 50 years. He’s still alive.

In other fields, there are a lot of philosophers who have made a significant contribution in practical matters like ethics, politics, justice. One very good example is a bioethics philosopher named Peter Singer. What he does is taking utilitarianism to its logical extreme and thinks it through completely. He started arguing about 40 years ago that according to the principle of utilitarianism, animals can feel pains and pleasures so they need to be counted. Their happiness need to be counted. He has parleyed back into Animal Rights Movement. He’s one of the person who was involved to what today Animal Rights is in, in trying not to eat them so much, not experimenting on them mercilessly for make up or something like that,in making sure that they have better living condition. We’re not doing a very good job about it but as a philosopher, he created this ethical and political movement. There’s a lot of philosophers that are active in the world today. Productive.

*End of part 1.  To be continued.*

More on philosophy:

[Day 1] AI and philosophy (3 min read)

[Day 2] Understand Socrates – Why philosophers should be prepared and willing to die? (10 min read)

[Day 3] Understand Socrates(part 2) – Why Socrates choose death in his trial? (6 min read)

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One thought on “[Day 9] Talk with professor – Dr. Rosental (part 1) – The differences in philosophers through time and impact of philosophers to the world (10 min read)

  1. Pingback: [Day 10] Talk with professor – Dr. Rosental (part 2) -Book recommendation,school system and college education (1o min read) | Phuc Le

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