Professor Joseph Rouse on Philosophy, Science, and Fencing
Chair of the Science in Society Program and Professor of Philosophy Joseph Rouse has interests that span, it seems, all of academia—science and philosophy, of course, but also history, sociology, and anthropology. Even his leisure reading often has to do with interdisciplinary studies. Although he will become a sexagenarian this summer, he hasn’t let that slow him down. He may be on sabbatical, but Rouse is still teaching a class, editing one book, publishing another, assistant coaching Wesleyan’s women’s volleyball team, preparing for the Center for the Humanities next year, and finding time to crack the top 30 in nationally ranked fencers for his age group. The Argus sat down with Professor Rouse, who has been here for 31 years, to discuss philosophy, science, their intersections, and everything in between.
The Argus: So, what’s on your very extensive bookshelf?
Joe Rouse: Where should we start? You know, is this about what I've been reading or what I teach?
A: Either. Do you have a system for how you organize or what are you reading right now for research for class?
JR: Well, I work in a lot of fields so…[points to each bookshelf] this bookshelf column is primarily philosophy of science; that column is 20th-century philosophy of language, mind, and metaphysics; this one is a mix of history of science, philosophy of biology, sociology and anthropology of science; and that's history of philosophy. These are the ones, of course, that are close by! Social theory, of course, is over there [laughs].
A: Anything for leisure reading or is this all academic?
JR: This is all professional, although I find I read a lot of the science studies as a combination of professional and leisure reading—it’s fun! Philosophical reading, although I love it, is slow and painstaking; you are carefully reading for argument.
The most interesting book I've recently read is Paul Edwards’ “A Vast Machine.” It’s about the making of modern climate science—not in terms of the theories and models, but how you even get the kind of data you need. The making of global climate and weather data such that we can now, in any serious way, model climate processes. It’s an extraordinarily good book. He’s a Wesleyan grad, actually! I've taught his earlier book, “A Closed World,” which is about the history of computing and psychology intertwined with the post -WWII period.
And, you know, one of the nice things about what I do is that it really gives me the opportunity to read widely—in science, science studies, history, social theory—in ways that inform what I do.
A: Speaking of how your academic interests are very broad, and also that you are kind of on sabbatical right now, could you tell me about the book you are currently working on?
JR: I’ve actually got two books in the works! One is not mine [laughs]. I'm editing and introducing a book on Heidegger by a close friend who passed away 2 years ago. John was in the midst of this amazing transformation of how we think of one of most widely-read philosophers of the 20th century. He had half a manuscript, and a lot of papers, that haven't gotten the attention they deserve.
I’m also finishing up (I hope) a book of my own! [laughs] It’s really got two parts that fit together. It’s like an arch; it won’t stand up unless both are there.
Part of [the book] is on conceptual understanding in the scientific practice; emphasizing the role of science in developing concepts and bringing whole dimensions of the world into conceptual understanding. For example, about science being more than just producing specific claims within that space. The importance of conceptual development. So that’s one side of the book.
The other side is thinking generally about what we mean by conceptual understanding and articulation as part of a more general understanding of conception of mind. I’m doing this in the broad context of a naturalistic scientific understanding of ourselves. ‘Naturalism,’ or a naturalist, is somebody who sees the natural world as we try to understand it scientifically as the basis for understanding everything about us.
The difficulty there is precisely to account for things like conceptual meaning, the normative assessment of judgments—moral norms as well, normativity more generally—as part of the natural world.
The book is saying that we can actually do this, but we have to rethink our understanding of what scientific understanding is, and rethink our familiar conceptions of human evolution, and the evolution of language and mind.
So it’s doing both of those at once! [laughs] Which makes it a very challenging book to put together and make the case for. But it’s almost done!
A: How long have you been working on this book?
JR: You know that’s hard to say. Working on it with this specific conception of the book? Maybe three years. And in some ways, it’s an extension of the argument in my last book, published ten years ago. So in that sense, I’ve been working on this material for twenty years!
A: Is this something you’ve been thinking about for a lot of your career?
JR: Yes. Everything I've been doing goes back and forth between thinking about a philosophical understanding of science that focuses on scientific practice, on the one hand, and thinking about how that engages with and reflects upon how we think about language and mind. Sciences are, after all, salient examples of conceptual articulation, conceptual understanding, mental activity...
And in doing both of those things, part of the point of thinking about [scientific] practice is to recognize that certainly scientific work is not just something for the office and laboratory—it’s a material transformation of the world around us. It has extraordinary political and cultural significance.
A: Yeah, a lot of what we talk about in my history of science class is about the social consequences of science, like how, for example, statistics has changed our entire conception of the world around us.
JR: Statistical reasoning is a wonderful example of the historical character of thinking! It took a great deal of work to figure out what it means to make statistical claims. And there’s some wonderful historical work on that—Ian Hacking and Lorraine Daston are a couple of examples. Claims that we now take for granted, such as ‘there’s a 60% chance of rain tomorrow,’ would have been unintelligible a couple of centuries ago! It’s not that people wouldn't have believed it, it wouldn’t have made sense to say it.
And in order to make that change, one had to actually work out a conception of how to reason with those concepts. And doing that was of course also built into an extraordinary range of everyday practices in our lives.
A: You are on sabbatical right now—anything interesting happen? Any great big philosophical insights you’d like to share?
JR: [sighs] The problem is going to be sharing them briefly enough for you to put them in The Argus! One of the things I would emphasize, which goes back to so much of the intersection of my work, is that we have so sharply separated our conception of the social world from a scientific understanding of nature. You can see this in how students don’t typically see the kinds of connections between their sciences and social science courses that they see, say, between their social science and their humanities courses. And yet, the sciences are utterly integral to every facet of our lives, in ways that don’t avidly get picked up in our thinking about social life.
One of the things I want to do is break down that barrier—to recognize the extent to which the sciences are practices that materially transform our lives. And also, change the ways we think about the social world in ways to allow the centrality of that work to show up.
We’ve built an artificial division between human social life and our being part of the natural world that isn’t actually there. And much of what I'm trying to do—especially including the new book—is trying to show how the complexity and richness of social life can be understood as biological phenomena. One needs better biology and one needs a better characterization of social practices. So that would be the one thing!
A: What about outside of academia—what do you like to spend your free time doing? Do you still assistant coach the women’s volleyball team?
JR: I still coach volleyball. Can’t play it anymore—well, I can for a short time, but then my knees would protest. No, I’ve taken up a new sport for the past couple of years; I’ve spent a lot of time fencing.
A: How do you like it?
JR: I love it! I originally got into it because my son is a top-level—no longer college-level because he is graduating—but a triple-A fencer and nationally competitive fencer. I was taking him to tournaments and realized some guys my age were doing this—I wondered why I was on the sideline. I started doing it the last two years, and spend a lot of time doing it. I fence two to three times a week and go to tournaments a lot.
A: To compete?
JR: Yeah! What I seriously want to do well at are the age group competitions, national competitions. I’m hoping to crack the top 30 in the over-60 list this year.
A: What do you think your chances are?
JR: Pretty good! I just transitioned into the 60s, I don't turn 60 until the summer, and they don't count my 50s points—if they’d count ‘em I'd be 30th now. So actually what I really want to do is make the top 20 now. I was 23rd, last time, in the North American competition—I think I can do better.