Wednesday, November 30, 2005
A conversation with . . .
Tom Staley has organized a conference
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CHRISTINA O'CONNOR | Special to The Roanoke Times
On the most basic level, we validate and codify this understanding every time we speak of the mind and the body, for example, as separate entities.
On a larger level, thinkers like Ken Wilber argue, we are suffering from a near-terminal division of seemingly disparate realms of existence which, with a balanced vision, we would understand as parts of a whole — science and religion on the largest scale.
The investigation into a proper balance of intersection between the humanities and the sciences can be thought of as one component in this larger investigation, and this weekend Virginia Tech will host an interdisciplinary symposium in an effort to examine this balance.
The conference will examine the emergence of the journal “Mind” beginning in the last quarter of the 19th century, as a crossroads for intellectual circles investigating the subject of the human mind, in a time when the schism between scientific and humanistic modes of thought, which we now understand as natural, was not in place to the same degree.
Tom Staley, a professor in the Science and Technology Studies department at Virginia Tech, organized the conference as a result of his study of the subject, and he recently took a few moments to reflect on the contemporary significance of these issues.
How did this symposium come about?
Tom Staley: One of the stories we talk a lot about in the department I work in — Science and Technology — is how modern science started. Maybe the mainstream story is that you’ve got this thing called natural philosophy that exists in the middle ages, coming up into the 17th century, and it turns into this thing we now think of as natural science, with new ideas in physics and chemistry and other places. … You’ve got this thing in the 19th century called mental philosophy or moral philosophy, and in the last quarter of the 19th century — the journal starts in 1876 — you see these guys trying to make something called human science, or social science.
And they set up this journal “Mind” that’s supposed to investigate this, and it’s called a journal of philosophy and psychology… but it’s a lot more than what you think of as philosophy or psychology today.
These guys are talking about ethics, religion, education, statistics — how do you measure what a human being is? … I decided this wasn’t a project I had time to deal with, so what you do when you find that out is you start a symposium to get other people to solve this problem for you, or more accurately to talk about the problem with you.
So this journal came into being as social science was emerging?
TS: If you want to look at it in terms of a metaphor of the old West, this is before they put the fences in. These guys set up this project, and eventually it does devolve into a bunch of professional psychologists over here, and sociologists over here, and political scientists and economists, and none of them really think of what they’re doing as connected to the other. In this time period you do see all of them talking to each other — an integrated project.
These guys are not departmentalized about how they’re thinking about the project.
This was a time when the spirit of inquiry was alive in a more sort of whole-world view?
TS: These guys are doing this before all the things we think of as mass media and public opinion polling and all these institutions were put together, but they’re setting up the tools for doing those sorts of projects. … These are things we today don’t often see addressed as part of rational discourse. They end up being thought of as just politics or just media, and these guys are saying you can’t do that. The media and politics and our economic systems and our religion and our ethics are all part of who we are, and we want to talk about those things in… a rational way.
What societal evolutions were taking place in that time period?
TS: Charles Darwin has just published his new ideas about evolution, and these very quickly get translated into thoughts of: if human beings are the products of some kind of evolution, whether it’s a biological process or a social process, it’s something you can channel; it becomes controllable. Either through nature or through nurture, you can start building better humans.
And that’s very much a project of the late 19th century… If you can take statistical techniques and figure out how human beings operate on a spectrum that you can measure, you can do something about making humans better. … These are of course disputed things, because what we end up calling this is social engineering, which is a bad thing. But these guys are thinking of a positive project, that if you could for example provide a mass education system you could better these people who haven’t had opportunities.
What will your lecturers be speaking about?
TS: We have about 15 speakers coming to this event. … We’ve got people talking about H.G. Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson and how they used these new ideas about how minds work in their novels. … You’ve got people looking at Italian futurist movements in the early 20th century, which was a movement in the arts toward a truly modern art form. You’ve got people talking about setting up institutions to study these issues — how you get funding for a project to study the human mind, which plays into who gets the results of course.
For myself and some of the other people associated with the philosophy department here at Virginia Tech, we’re looking at what gets to count as philosophy. What is philosophy?
In the story I told you about natural philosophy turning into natural science, mental philosophy turning into social science, is there anything called philosophy left over at the end? Or is philosophy just a machine for creating new science? … And other issues are: are emotions something that you can physically measure? Is creativity something that you can measure, something that you can improve upon in some way?
What do you see as the significance of these issues to contemporary culture?
TS: These are issues that still confront us. How we’re going to educate people, what sorts of ethical systems we’re going to embrace, how we measure what human beings are, which you see every day on the news — opinion polling and things like this. The problem is we don’t have a place today to talk about these things all at once — a place like the journal where the setup of the economic system and the ethical system and religion and emotion were thought of as one big bundle that had to be rationally discussed. Maybe now we need that sort of perspective even more than we did back then. My hope is that we can still put the pieces back together…Is there a better way to do it? And can we learn from the past in finding a better way, so that we don’t get the bad outcomes of what you call social engineering, but we do get the benefits of what you call human science.
The symposium “The Mind Project: Intersections of Philosophy, Human Science and Humanities in the Journal ‘Mind,’ 1876-1920” will be held in the Donaldson Brown center at Virginia Tech Friday-Sunday.
For more information, view the Virginia Tech calendar of events.