Philosophy faculty members to speak at final fall Humanities Happy Hour

November 20, 2014 | Events, UToday, — Languages, Literature and Social Sciences
By Lindsay Mahaney

The study of the origins of knowledge and nature: Philosophy will be the focus of the final Humanities Happy Hour Friday, Nov. 21.

Dr. Madeline Muntersbjorn, UT associate professor of philosophy, and Dr. John Sarnecki, UT associate professor of philosophy and department chair, will speak from 6 to 7 p.m. in the Libbey Hall dining room.

The free, public event will begin at 5 p.m. with a beer and wine cash bar and free refreshments that will continue through the talks and end at 8 p.m.

Muntersbjorn’s talk, “Why Monsters Matter,” will sketch the lineage of monsters throughout history and how our views of monsters change over time, both in art and science.

Monsters have been around for as long as culture, Muntersbjorn says as we learn from studying the Löwenmensch, a 40,000-year-old sculpture depicting a person with a lion’s head that was first identified as male, then as female, and now as the Lion-person.

“You can trace the history of civilization by tracing the history of monsters,” she said. “I’m pretty sure the person who carved the Löwenmensch did not have the same distinction between art and science, fact and fiction, like we do today.”

The talk will be largely based on Muntersbjorn’s course, Science Fiction Selves — a writing-across-the-curriculum class she is teaching next semester. The class aims to help students develop a better understanding of what it means to be a person by researching developments in the changing relationships between science and art.

Muntersbjorn explained that humans are born with a predisposition to distinguish what’s animate from inanimate, which is part of what makes scary movies scary: An object will move and our brains tell us that it’s not supposed to be that way.

“In the same way, monsters are particularly scary when they go from being inanimate corpses to animate blood-sucking demons,” she said.

Sarnecki will speak about the modern mind and the process by which it came about in his lecture titled “Culture and the Origins of Human Cognition.”

He explained that the common theories of how the mind came about emphasize biological or neurological explanations. However, he argues that changes in modern cognition stem from external factors in society and culture.

“Looking at the process by which culture has contributed to increasing our understanding and our ability to think about the world,” he said, “it seems to me that the changes aren’t so much biological changes, but the capacity to pass on information that we’ve learned over time.”

Sarnecki gave the example of chimpanzees: Chimps today live like chimps did yesterday, he said.

“There’s no change in chimp life,” he said. “They’ve lived the same way for hundreds of thousands and likely millions of years, whereas humans seem to be changing at this incredibly rapid rate.”

Humans have developed methods for transmitting information between generations, which is how humans can preserve knowledge over time, he said.

The Humanities Institute in the College of Languages, Literature and Social Sciences started Humanities Happy Hour as a way for the humanities colleagues to meet and share what they’re working on with the public. The institute serves as an advocate and support for the study of human culture at UT.

“Philosophy is in many ways the foundation of all intellectual work we do at the University, for it’s at the root of not only the humanities, but also the social and natural sciences,” said Dr. Christina Fitzgerald, director of the institute and English professor. “It asks the big questions about the meaning of life: Why is there something rather than nothing? What does it mean to think? What is a ‘good life’? What is beauty? And so on. Drs. Muntersbjorn and Sarnecki are likewise asking big questions about monsters in the human imagination and the origin of human cognition itself.”

For more information, contact the Humanities Institute at 419.530.4407 or

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