Professor Joseph Rouse always comes five minutes early to class, delicately placing his backpack and bicycle helmet behind the podium. He sits on the table at the front of the room, swinging his matte black New Balance sneakers rhythmically with his hands clasped, silently greeting each student with a stretched smile and a turned head. Sitting, he is the height of most students. A manila envelope holds together the pages of his notes for the class. Before he begins, he clears his throat and pushes his silver wireframe glasses, slightly thicker than his white wiry hair, closer to his lively blue eyes.
His class notes consist of material compiled in computer, typewriter, and handwritten form. He uses his notes like a jazz musician uses sheet music, to give guidance and structure to a fluently and fluidly improvised narrative. Some students record his lectures and some try to furiously type his every word, knowing that in the course of a single class he simultaneously composes and dictates a comprehensive 10-page overview and critical analysis of the 40-page philosophical reading that the students struggled to understand.
More than just a philosophical writer, Rouse is a philosophical superstar. He is the Hedding professor of moral science, a professor of philosophy, a professor of Science in Society, and a professor of environmental studies. His course titled Philosophy of Science is touted as one of the best Wesleyan has to offer. When graduates are asked for advice by current students, the suggestion to “take a Rouse class” is offered as frequently from art to economics majors as is the suggestion to “take it easy.” In 2015, Rouse published his fourth book, “Articulating the World.” In it, he compiles ideas that he has been trying out on his students and refining for the 40 years of his full-time teaching career.
It’s perhaps his most ambitious project yet. In it, he expertly weaves together strands of philosophy that have never before been put together.
“‘Articulating the World’ is a work of synthesis that few authors could attempt, much less carry through,” said Michael Williams, professor of philosophy at Johns Hopkins University.
Rouse’s philosophical career was defined early on by a disregard for the traditional divisions within the field of philosophy, a strategy that has worked much to his academic success. He has written four books, each of which has been cited by other philosophical works between 200 and 700 times.
“One of the things that I have been doing for a long time and that I have consciously pursued, is to read things together that a lot of people don’t,” Rouse said. “I am able to see connections between things that nobody else sees, but only because they haven’t read them together!”
Rouse speaks almost as if each sentence is a joke with a well-thought-out punch line at the end. Leaving you hanging on until the last word to make sense of it all, he pauses like an engine revving up before he accelerates excitedly through his point’s completion.
The Philosophical Conflict
“Articulating the World” tackles a problem that has been with philosophers from the very beginning.
For the average scientist, the world you can see and measure is all there is. It is a world of particles that bump and vibrate.
But then there’s also something else: the world of meaning. We have an abstract world. We have imagination. We think of the way the sun crests the horizon as beautiful. We have whole fields of thought and talk that can happen in ways that are removed from our surroundings.
So how could a world of meaning ever arise from this mechanistic world of colliding particles?
This shows us a profound philosophical contradiction. It is meaning alone that allows us to talk about, make sense of, and discover elements of our mechanistic world. We only believe Newton’s ideas of physics because he meaningfully articulated it to his peers and predecessors. But the ideas of particle causality that Newton meaningfully described made the very words he used to utter them meaningless.
Put another way, how could it be that our meaningful lives let us discover and understand the mechanistic world in which we live, but that this mechanistic world that we have discovered doesn’t seem to allow for meaning in the first place?
Like the way many contradictions are resolved, Rouse shows in “Articulating the World” that this contradiction arises from an improper understanding of both sides. He tackles this problem head on as one of the most original thinkers in contemporary philosophy, but the origins of his views trace back much earlier in his life.
Joseph Rouse’s Personal Connection
Rouse was born in Washington D.C. and moved to Memphis in 1964 for middle school.
At an early age, Rouse saw for himself that science didn’t exist separate from a political and social context that purported a value-free truth. On the contrary, it was a field laden with the very values that made its access something to be fought over and for.
When Rouse tells a story, you cannot help leaning forward. You can tell from his wealth of experience that he has curated a list of tales he has told before and hopes to tell again. It is with a repetition that is not rote but lyrical, intending not to ruminate but to entertain and inform.
“My first year at middle school, we had a parent teacher night,” he said. “My parents and I were standing in line behind someone else who was talking to my history teacher who also taught life science. It was a very guarded and dancing conversation. What I later realized was that he was saying, ‘This kid is really smart. She should actually learn some biology!’ And I realized that my teacher was trying to make sure that if he gave the student additional reading on evolution, the parents wouldn’t bring him to the school board!”
Rouse entered Oberlin College determined to study the physical sciences, taking an advanced chemistry course in his first year where he was tasked with using inorganic syntheses from German 19th-century literature to identify an unknown compound.
In his second year, after being forced to take a philosophy course to “avoid taking art and music classes,” Rouse gradually realized that his interest in science did not lie where he originally thought.
“What I had actually liked about physics was not physics but philosophical issues in physics,” he said. “I had a lot of conceptual interest in the sciences.”
The larger part of Rouse’s career has been defined by putting a beating heart back into the sciences. Far too often, we think of science as a body of knowledge that we have about the world. This is inadequate, Rouse argues. Instead, we must see science as a practical endeavor. Sure, we have theories about the world, but these theories could only come about from the experiments we perform and the model systems that we construct. Scientists and the things they do matter.
In this regard, Rouse does not go easy on the standards of a scientist, using himself as a counterexample.
“I didn’t really have the self-awareness to recognize this at the time, but I realize now that I was not in fact the kind of person who was careful, meticulous, or creative in the lab, or who had a good kind of practical understanding of materials,” he said.
But leaning back in his chair with his arms behind his head, he sighed as he reminisced about the nickel metallic complex that he ended up synthesizing.
“It was actually, when it finally precipitated, a quite beautiful lavender color,” he said.
Rouse and “Articulating the World”
Rouse compares the structure of his book to the Rialto Bridge in Venice. The bridge meets in the center of the canal at an obtuse angle which, when painted from certain perspectives, achieves an illusion of architectural impossibility. Similarly, his book is divided into two halves: half pushes for a radical shift in the way we think about science, which he has been arguing for a long time in his career.
Take an example. We have known since Watson and Crick that DNA spirals to the right. If one day, we found evidence to suggest that DNA spiraled to the left, first we would say, “No, really? Prove it.” This is a healthy skepticism. It is this skepticism that commits us to sift through the most recent evidence, as well as the old evidence, to understand what went wrong and how.
An apparent contradiction in scientific understanding strengthens the scientific practices. Through disagreement, we come to more rigorous definitions of what kinds of experiments can justify particular conclusions. Seeing science simply as a body of knowledge does not allow for this kind of flexibility. It doesn’t allow for the notion of truth, error, and meaning that is present in any human practice.
But this half of the book can only stand alone if we can justify why we accept scientific evidence at all. The other half of his book uses Rouse’s extensive knowledge of current sciences to show how a natural world of bumping particles could allow for the meaning that is embedded in all of human life including scientific practices.
“There are some areas of science that are more important for me than others,” Rouse said. “Probably the area I think most about now is at the intersection of genetics, development, and evolution.”
It is in this intersection that Rouse finds new developments in evolutionary theory particularly relevant for philosophers to consider. Scientists have recently shown that organisms have a much larger role in changing their environment than we previously thought.
Take the beaver. By building dams, the beaver completely changes its environment and in turn the traits that are selected for its evolution.
For humans, the environment, while made up of what we traditionally think of as a material world like trees and sunshine, is also composed of other people and the things we make, like buildings, street signs, and language.
Rouse uses this nuanced understanding of evolution to compare human language to beaver dams. Language is part of an environment just as much as a beaver dam is, Rouse argues, and as such, it can alter our evolution just as much as a mutated gene. Only by embracing modern scientific ideas of evolution can philosophers understand language that is truthful and meaningful in a natural world.
“Articulating the World” forces scientists to take a step back from their entanglement with their work and put their bodies back into their ideas. Science doesn’t make sense without the human practices that go into forming it.
It also forces philosophers to engage more with the current sciences. Rouse is prying the hands from the ears of philosophers who claim that it is impossible to see human capacities like reason and conceptual understanding as a natural phenomenon, and saying, “Watch it happen.”
The Rialto Bridge was built in 1588 and has stood unchanged to this day. Perhaps one day, Rouse’s work may be seen to rival this structure, but for now, we can only wait, hands clasped and legs swinging like he does at the beginning of every class, and watch it happen.