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Amherst College Professor of Philosophy Alexander George will deliver three lectures later this month as part of the prestigious 2011-12 Romanell Professorship, awarded by Phi Beta Kappa to one leading philosophy scholar each year. George has taught at Amherst since 1988, holds degrees from Harvard and Columbia Universities and is himself a member of Phi Beta Kappa.

Professor of Philosophy Alexander George
Photo by Sam Masinter ’04

The lectures, together titled, “Reason and Religion,” are free and open to the public, and will take place at 4:30 p.m. Feb. 21, 23 and 28 at Pruyne Lecture Hall in Fayerweather Hall. Light refreshments will follow the first two lectures; a reception (with a Scottish theme) and bagpipes will follow the third .

Professor George recently answered a few questions about the lectures, the The Romanell-Phi Beta Kappa Professorship, and the role of philosophy in society.

Congratulations once again on receiving the Romanell-Phi Beta Kappa Professorship, one of the top awards in philosophy. Do you have a sense of why you received this award?

I believe the Professorship is often awarded to someone who has contributed to the public understanding of philosophy.  And perhaps my work with - a website that allows anyone to submit philosophical questions to a panel of professional philosophers - was thought to be such a contribution.  But this is speculation, and we might simply have to gesture to the good taste of the award committee.

 Youwill be giving a series of three lectures in February, focusingon the philosophy of David Hume and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Why did you choose to explorethese two philosophers for your public lectures?

I wanted to talk about what's been obsessing me for the past year or so, and that's been Hume and Wittgenstein.  This Scotsman and this Austrian, in addition to being fascinating personalities, are simply among the most crazily gifted people the human race has produced.  As philosophers, they had everything: vision, argumentative brilliance, sparkling originality, and a writing style that can make you catch your breath.

 Would it be possible for you to provide a brief preview of each of the three lectures (the titles of the three lectures are as follows: “An Everlasting Check: Hume against Miracles”; “Truisms, Falsehoods, and Double Standards: Everyone against Hume”;  “The Crowd of Thoughts Stuck in the Exit: The Consolations of Wittgenstein”)?

In one of Hume's most infamous essays, he argued that it would never be reasonable to believe that something miraculous had occurred on the basis of someone's telling you so.  Since miracles form the basis of many religions and since many people believe in those miracles on account of what they've been told or read, you can imagine the essay's reception.  Indeed, people have been arguing against this essay, defending it, or simply trying to understand it, without pause for over 250 years.  

In my first lecture, I'd like to present the essay to those unfamiliar with it and to propose a way of understanding it that brings out what Hume must have thought was philosophically important about it (which actually has nothing to do with miracles).  In the second lecture, I shall consider a handful of objections to Hume that regularly appear through the centuries and I shall suggest that, though often very interesting, they miss their target.  

Finally, in the last lecture, I want to suggest a very different kind of dissatisfaction with Hume's essay, one that is inspired by thinking about Wittgenstein's dismissal of certain approaches to magic and ritual.  All this is related to more general issues of how to address human puzzlement, about how to philosophize.

 Compared to your latest book, What Should I Do?, this subject matter seemsto be more field specific. Would a lay person untrained in philosophy be able to follow these lectures?

Yes, certainly, that's my intention.  Money-back guarantee if someone fails to get excited by Hume or Wittgenstein.  [Editor's note: as noted above, the lectures are all free.]

I imagine that both Wittgenstein and Hume have been thoroughly examined and analyzed. Are you breaking any new philosophical ground in these lectures?

Oh there is no end to analysis.  Philosophy is not tic-tac-toe.  I hope I can say a few things that have not been said before (and that are not utterly crazy).

 Can you describe the process for preparing these lectures? Did you draw upon previous work of yours? Do you have plans to incorporate material from these lectures in future projects?

It's certainly been helpful to be able to offer upper-level seminars at Amherst on these and related issues.  It concentrates the mind wonderfully to stand before a room of intelligent people looking to you to make sense of something.  None of what I say has already appeared in print, though I would like to gather it together for presentation to a wider audience, if I could just become happy with it - or I suppose resigned would do.

Why is it important for the general public to have access to and understanding of philosophical discussions such as these?

Philosophical thought is one of the gems of human creation. A culture is impoverished in so far as they are kept out of sight, under lock-and-key in the vaults of universities.