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October 26, 2006, 7:30 PM

The Limits of Explanation

Participants: Edward Casey, Francisca Cho, Harry Eyres (moderator), Robert Michels, Mark Norell, Christopher Peacocke

We're mad for explanation. From the origins of the universe to the nature of consciousness, we want our mysteries explained, made comprehensible, given reasons and justifications. But science's success in explaining natural phenomena might just possibly have blinded us to the limits of explanation. Certain of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century addressed these limits. Edmund Husserl and the phenomenologists who followed him favored description over explanation and bracketed truth questions, uncovering the richness of individual events, experience and perception. Wittgenstein tried to set limits to philosophy itself - the reiterated theme of his writing, Norman Malcolm has said, is that "explanations, reasons, justifications come to an end."

One question is whether there are some things that cannot be explained. Another is whether there are things (or people) that should not be explained. In psychiatry and psychoanalysis we come across ethical limits of explanation. When we attempt to explain (remembering that the word 'explain' comes from the Latin 'to flatten out') a person's pathology, or existential anxiety, are we diminishing or disrespecting that person? Is the excessive desire for explanation itself a pathology?

Edward Casey is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Stony Brook University. His published works include Remembering: A Phenomenological Study, Getting Back into Place, and The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History.

Francisca Cho is Associate Professor of Theology at Georgetown University and works in the area of East Asian Buddhism and culture. She is the author of Embracing Illusion: Truth and Fiction in the Dream of the Nine Clouds and the translator of Everything You Yearned For: Manhae's Poems of Love and Longing.

Harry Eyres is a journalist, poet, environmentalist, wine writer, and theater teacher. He is former poetry critic for The London Times and poetry editor for Daily Express, regular columnist in The Financial Times weekend section, and author of Beginner's Guide to Plato's The Republic, Bluffer's Guide to Wine, and the poetry collection Hotel Eliseo.

Robert Michels is Walsh McDermott University Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and Training and Supervising Analyst at the Columbia University Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research.

Mark Norell is Chairman and Curator in the Division of Paleontology at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. He is the the co-author of Discovering Dinosaurs: Evolution, Extinction, and the Lessons of Prehistory.

Christopher Peacocke is Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. Formerly Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at the University of Oxford, he is a fellow of the British Academy. He is the author of Sense and Content, Thoughts: An Essay on Content, A Study of Concepts, Being Known, and The Realm of Reason.


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