Kant Expert Joins Brown U.for Its New Humanities Effort

April 15, 2012

Through two programs announced in the past couple of years, Brown University is seeking to simultaneously beef up its commitment to the humanities and attract the world's best teachers and scholars across the university.

And with the appointment of Paul Guyer, a philosophy professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a pre-eminent scholar of Immanuel Kant, those programs are beginning to deliver on their promises.

In July, Mr. Guyer, who is 64, will become the inaugural Jonathan Nelson Professor, an honor the university intends to recognize "excellence" in research and teaching. He is also the first faculty member to be hired through the Humanities Initiative, which is supported by $3-million that was part of a gift from an anonymous donor.

Brown expects to hire five more professors of humanities through a collaborative, interdepartmental process that is separate from regular departmental hires.

"The thing that has kept me interested in Kant over the years is his conception of freedom as the most fundamental human value, even, as he sometimes calls it, the 'inner worth of the world,'" he says.

Mr. Guyer says he enjoys teasing out the real-world implications for that concept of freedom as a value. In the political realm, for instance, that involves finding the right way to balance freedom with values of equality and well-being. "It's something that has immense value in our present cultural condition," he says.

The author of nine books and more than 200 articles, Mr. Guyer is working on a book that traces the "afterlife" of Kant's moral philosophy, exploring the ways in which his writings were accepted and criticized, and in which they inspired others' work.

Mr. Guyer says he was attracted to Brown because of its "major commitment" to the humanities, which provides for interdisciplinary collaboration. "They're particularly interested in ways in which the humanities can interact with other more scientifically driven disciplines," he says. "I don't think anybody knows exactly what that involves yet, but it'll be interesting and exciting to be part of it."