Peter Tan is associate professor and chair of the philosophy department. His interests in philosophy are as varied as his courses: he teaches anything from bioethics to philosophy of religion to environmental ethics. He published an article on Obamacare for a chapter in a bioethics text and another on gun-related violence against women. His most recent article is about the relationship between bioethics and environmental ethics.
You teach bioethics to nursing students. Is that one of your specialties?
It’s not, but it’s something I’m good at. I teach bioethics slightly differently than most textbooks. My approach stresses theory as much as individual cases, and we look at what the applications are and discuss situations they might find themselves in that are the same or similar to cases we are looking at. If they ever come across these cases at work, at least they’ve seen it before. Bioethics really complements the whole person approach taught in nursing.
Why is philosophy important in a liberal arts education?
It is the very foundation of the liberal arts education. It gives students an historical breadth and intellectual depth to go into any situation and any discipline and make sense of it. It provides a framework to work through contentious issues they will encounter. It allows them to go in and ask the deeper questions and not be satisfied with the answers they’ve been given.
Did you always know you wanted to study philosophy?
No. I studied geology, focusing on paleontology and geophysics in college. But I didn’t like that the only job I could get was in the petroleum or mining industries. In grad school, I went into philosophy. There are important likenesses between geology and philosophy. One is that geology deals with time and the fact that human existence is a process in time that all organisms undergo. Charles Darwin’s most treasured book on his voyage on the Beagle was Charles Lyell’s “Principles of Geology.” It gave Darwin the sense of deep time necessary for evolution to occur. The second likeness is that geophysics uses physical principles such as gravimetric and electro-magnetism to determine subsurface structures you cannot see. That is important in my interest in philosophy, where philosophical techniques are used to see things below the surface.
Are you really going to climb a mountain during your sabbatical?
In a couple of years, I’m going to take a sabbatical to the south of France. My big project will be to write a nonacademic book, a retake on an old medieval text by Petrarch. In 1336, he climbs Mont Ventoux and uses that climb as an allegory of the human philosophical struggle certainly as large as the physical one represented by a mountain ascent. After almost 700 years, it’s about time for another such journey.