Two Stories Integrating Explanation and Interpretation

An English professor friend told me this story a few years ago. He was teaching Hamlet for the fifth day in a row, when a Nursing student declared with considerable conviction that she had determined that Hamlet was suffering from a vitamin deficiency. This seems to me a fairly humerous example of causal explanation intruding on hermeneutic engagement (but perhaps not illegitimately so — though I can’t really see what vitamins add to our understanding of Hamlet).

For a quite different case: at the Collaboration conference I attended last November in the Twin Cities, Vanderbilt Nursing professor Jeanette Norden spoke compellingly about some of her efforts to promote personal (i.e. ethical) development in her students. Among other approaches, she typically requires her neurobiology students to read a text that does not obviously apply to the subject matter, leaving it up to the students to discover meaning in the text’s conjunction with the class. One such book was by a medical professional who survived a Nazi concentration camp. Her book detailed the dietary intake of the inmates and catalogued their suffering. Norden’s students eventually saw a connection between this suffering and the neurobiological consequences of the inmates’ extremely restricted diets, which in turn led these students to consider (a) the horrible consequences of starvation in many poor countries in Africa and (b) some concrete steps that they as Vanderbilt students might take to do something about (a).

Norden’s story has no direct relevance to the naturalist vs. normativist debate, and yet I think the way that human stories and concerns mix with causal explanation here might serve as an example of the way we might integrate these divergent accounts of ourselves so as to make ourselves more human in the process.

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