Paul Guyer


Paul Guyer

Jonathan Nelson Professor of Humanities
Professor of Philosophy

Mike Cohea/Brown University
Paul Guyer is the first faculty member to be hired as part of the University’s humanities initiative. His status as one of the world’s foremost scholars of the work of Immanuel Kant began early, with a routine assignment in high school.

As a junior in high school, Paul Guyer had no way of knowing that a routine book report would lead him down an academic path that would become his life’s work. Instructed to write about a book of essays, the 16-year-old Guyer picked up a 45-cent copy of David Hume’s Essays Concerning Human Understanding at a Penn Station bookstore while waiting for a train to take him home to Long Island. Guyer began reading the book on the train and was immediately struck.

“There were these unbelievably elegant and compelling essays in which the author seemed to be doubting that there was any such thing as causation,” Guyer recalls.

Although the writing was “gorgeous,” something about the philosopher’s argument didn’t sit well with Guyer, and he set out to find a rebuttal to Hume’s theory. A little hunting revealed the works of German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Intrigued and needing to know more, Guyer took a course on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason with then little-known political philosopher Robert Nozick during his sophomore year at Harvard. Nozick’s course sealed the deal - “I was completely hooked,” Guyer says - and sparked an insatiable interest that has fueled Guyer’s research for the last 40 years. So much so, that today, Guyer is known as one of the world’s leading Kant scholars.

After that first class, Guyer delved deep into Kant’s writings, studying his theory of knowledge and, later, Kant’s theory of art for his graduate thesis, also at Harvard — a choice of topic Guyer says was not only spurred by an academic interest but also something more personal. At the time, Guyer’s father was a painter who also worked a day job in art advertising. While home on school vacations, Guyer would often be called upon for his opinion of his father’s latest works. And while he knew what he liked and didn’t like, he wasn’t always sure why he felt one way or the other. He hoped Kant’s aesthetic theory would provide him with those answers. He quickly learned that philosophy isn’t always so straightforward.

“One of the things you learn from studying the history of aesthetics is you’ll never get a set of rules for judging art, only a set of general ideas about the value of experiencing art. But there is never a mechanical step from those general ideas to judgments about individual works.”

One of Kant’s other central ideas, however, remains a favorite of Guyer’s — “His idea that freedom is the most fundamental human value, the thing humans care about more than anything else. But equal freedom, freedom for all, not just one’s own freedom. That conception of the basis of morality has continued to hold my interest for many many years,” Guyer says.

Still, it’s not all Kant all the time for Guyer. He’s also done extensive research on the history of modern aesthetics and will wrap up work on a three-volume book on the subject this summer. While his favorite German philosopher is not the main player in the book, he does play a supporting role.

Guyer has several other projects in the works as well, including papers on both the philosophy of architecture (another recurring research interest) and on Kant’s views about freedom and views about human action. The latter will examine those views through the lens of Kant’s lesser known texts.

This fall, Guyer hopes to start a new book on the impact of Kant’s moral philosophy on the history of the discipline.

He’ll balance all that research with several courses in the upcoming academic year: A 1000-level course on Kant’s practical philosophy and a series of three 2000-level courses on 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century aesthetics to be offered over the next several years.

Beyond campus, Guyer is finishing a term as president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association and serves as president of the American Society of Aesthetics. He’ll deliver an address at the latter organization’s annual meeting this fall.

Guyer won’t be the only member of his family to join the Brown community. His wife, Pamela Foa, currently a federal prosecutor in Philadelphia, will be a scholar in residence at the Pembroke Center for the 2013-15 academic years. She will teach a course on the legal aspects of gender issues. The couple has a daughter, Nora, who works in education.

In joining the Brown faculty this year, Guyer becomes the first hire of the University’s humanities initiative, a factor that Guyer says attracted him to Brown.

“To be at a university that has that kind of commitment to the humanities and to be part of that kind of initiative is very exciting to me. I look forward with interest to being the first of these appointments in the humanities and to seeing what role I can play in promoting the humanities at Brown.”