Monday, July 27, 2009

Steven D. Hales & Sophie

Who is in the photo at right?

I'm Steven Hales, a professor of philosophy at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. My official interests are metaphysics and epistemology—I enjoy tricky questions about the nature of time, how objects persist despite changing, whether our most basic moral feelings and intuitions really tell us anything about reality, and the like. Friedrich Nietzsche used to be a hobby of mine. My unofficial interests are in popularizing philosophy, as in my books "What Philosophy Can Tell You About Your Dog," "What Philosophy Can Tell You About Your Cat," and "Beer and Philosophy." My really unofficial interests are in tennis, jazz, rare books, and travel. I'm with my dog Sophie. She's a 2.5 year old mixed-breed bitch. We don't know what she's mixed with, but with her white coloring, shape, and fur, we strongly suspect that she's largely an English golden retriever.

What's the occasion for Coffee with a Canine?

We live in rural Pennsylvania, and every morning Sophie and I walk down our long (1000') driveway to get the local paper. I have to restrain her to keep her from chasing the groundhogs, rabbits, squirrels, deer, and occasional black bear. When we get back to the house the coffee is brewed and we have breakfast together.

What's brewing?

I grind my beans fresh every morning and use a French press. I like dark roasts, and my current favorite is Starbucks' Gold Coast. I usually drink it black. But really, anything coffee is good. Coffee ice cream, chocolate-covered espresso beans, iced frappuccinos with whipped cream... I recently made a Turkish coffee pudding that was pretty tasty.

Any goodies to go with the coffee?

If I have a cup during the day (like, say, to wake me up before an afternoon class), I'll sometimes have a biscotti to go with it. I keep a stash in my desk.

Any treat for Sophie on this occasion?

Sophie tends to get her treats in the morning, like finishing off my daughter's cereal bowl. She's also partial to Pupperonis, and whatever she can snatch off the kitchen table when we're out of the room.

How did Sophie come to be united with you?

Sophie's a rescue dog, saved from West Virginia hillbillies who used her for BB gun target practice. We adopted her for our daughter Holly's 4th birthday. We thought it would be great to have both 4-year-old kid and a 6-month-old puppy. Clearly we had not thought that plan all the way through.

How did Sophie get her name?

I wanted to name our daughter "Sophie" but got outvoted in favor of "Holly." However, I got to name the dog. "Sophia" is Greek for wisdom, and is one of the root words for "philosophy." A much better name for the dog would have been "Houdini." Sophie could escape from a supermax prison. It practically takes landmines and concertina wire to keep her in the yard; our 11 acres just isn't big enough for a dog with the wanderlust of Columbus. And she always heads straight for the muddy creek with her buddy Wiley, the big black dog next door.

What was your inspiration behind "What Philosophy Can Tell You About Your Dog?"

There’s a recent trend in philosophy to write books that try to bring our ideas out of the ivory tower, and aim to show the philosophical issues that underlie the most prosaic activities and interests. For example, Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s essay "On Bullshit" was a #1 New York Times bestseller, and Stanford philosophers Ken Taylor and John Perry host a philosophical radio show. And respected presses like Open Court and Blackwell have launched whole series of books devoted to popular philosophy. I’ve tried to make some modest contributions to this endeavor, and "What Philosophy Can Tell You About Your Dog" is one. So my inspiration was to show pet lovers a way into philosophy, how the life of the mind is intimately connected with one’s life with dogs.

So what does philosophy have to say about dogs?

The classic dogs vs. cats joke is that dogs think, “my people keep me warm and dry, feed me good food, pet me, brush me, and play with me. They must be gods!” Cats, on the other hand, think, “my people keep me warm and dry, feed me good food, pet me, brush me, and play with me. I must be a god!” But what really goes on in our dogs' heads? Here's where philosophy of mind comes in, looking at questions like these: Are guide dogs for the blind literally an extension of their owner’s mind? Was French philosopher RenĂ© Descartes right in maintaining that dogs are mere automata, mindless, soulless, clock-like mechanisms without language or love? If our dogs think, then do insects think as well? If bees are just biological robots, then why aren’t dogs? There's ethical questions too: Do even dogs have a dignity that we must respect? Do our dogs really have moral rights, or is it just anthropomorphizing to think so? Why does Aristotle think that our dogs cannot be good dogs unless we are good masters? Is it wrong to shower our dogs with too many luxuries? Even logicians can get in on the act. In 1615 King James of Scotland and England (of King James Bible fame) hosted a debate on the use of logic by dogs. I'm not going to tell you who won.

What's your dog doing right now?

Lying under the rolltop desk at my feet as I type this.

Learn more about Steven D. Hales teaching and scholarship at his faculty webpage.

Among the praise for "What Philosophy Can Tell You About Your Dog:"
“This wonderful book is a thought-provoking and deeply compelling exploration of one of our most important relationships—that with animals.”
—Diane Leigh and Marilee Geyer, authors of "One at a Time: A Week in an American Animal Shelter"

“This book gives you some provocative, unusual, dog-friendly ideas, disguised as philosophy. One or two stories will break your heart and others will make you ponder matters you might have missed in college.”
—Jeffrey Masson, best-selling author of "Dogs Never Lie about Love" and "Dogs Have the Strangest Friends"
Read more about the book at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue