Philosophy Professor Steven Nadler on life, learning and playing

December 19th 2017 | L&S News
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Growing up on Long Island, Steven Nadler played basketball, baseball, and street hockey, listened to Led Zeppelin, and rode his bicycle—a Schwinn Sting-Ray, and later, a 10-speed Peugeot—from one end of the island to the other.

Nobody, including Nadler, would have guessed he’d become a distinguished scholar of philosophy and Jewish studies with a long list of books and honors attached to his name.

“Neither of my parents went to college,” says Nadler, who has taught philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for more than 25 years. “My father was a really intelligent and talented man—an artist from Montreal who went into advertising in New York. But I wouldn't say that our home was an intellectually rich one, as wonderful as it was.”

Nadler has written 11 books (one of them, Rembrandt’s Jews, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize). He founded the UW-Madison Center for the Humanities in 1999, and served as its director until 2004. In fall 2017, Nadler was selected to lead the Institute for Research in the Humanities at UW-Madison. We asked the William H. Hay II Professor of Philosophy to reflect on his past, present, and future.

Professor Nadler, when did you first begin to study philosophy, and why were you drawn to it?
It was my very first semester in college. I took a philosophy class, just on a whim. The professor made the material come alive, and I decided right then: “That’s what I want to do.” I never looked back. I found I just had a real taste for philosophy –I seemed to have a good mind for it, and it addressed questions that I found fascinating. Around the same time, I became a very serious reader, and not just of philosophy.

What attracted you to 17th-century figures like Spinoza (the subject of your just-published book, "A Book Forged in Hell")?
Partly it was the influence of that first philosophy professor (now a good friend), who specialized in this area. But I also found working in the history of philosophy much more engaging than working on particular philosophical issues, and the 17th century struck me as a rich and brilliant moment, particularly because philosophy in this period is so closely connected to developments in science and conflicts in theology and religion.

Do you find it easy to relate early philosophy to contemporary life?
I think that you have to make these connections. Otherwise, doing history of philosophy becomes a dry, antiquarian enterprise. All of philosophy is a kind of dialogue, a conversation in which theses and arguments get analyzed and assessed. It just so happens that the particular philosophers I’m in dialogue with in my research are long dead. But I don’t see why reading Plato or Aristotle or Epictetus or Kant is not as important now as it was centuries ago. If we want to know about what is good, true, and right, about political obligation, the experience of beauty, and so on, we need to read those thinkers who had the most important and influential things to say about such topics.

Give us a sense of where the field of philosophy is today.
It is growing in interesting ways, especially as students realize that philosophy is a terrific major for many different career tracks. If you are going into law, business, even medicine, philosophy is a great liberal arts major insofar as it provides essential critical-thinking skills, a familiarity with some of the most serious and pressing questions human beings face, and a knowledge of an important part of our intellectual and historical legacy.

Even philosophers need a break from thinking. What do you do to relax?
I love spending time with my family (although now that both of my children are grown, it’s just myself and my wife, who is a retired history teacher at West High School) and with our friends. We've been active in the Madison Jewish community. As a musician I play guitar and banjo with a couple of bands. One plays folk music at the Farmer’s Market, and the other is a fiddle band that accompanies contra dances. From spring through the fall, I spend a lot of my free time cycling, usually very long rides on the weekends. I've completed two Ironman triathlons, but now just do recreational running and cycling. In the winter I play ice hockey, and love pick-up games on the lakes.

There’s something especially fun about teamwork on the ice.