Published: Oct. 28, 2020

Robert C. Pasnau, college professor of distinction, notes that key questions facing humanity, like truth, objectivity and fairness, are ‘ultimately philosophical’

Robert C. Pasnau has spent his career understanding the history of human civilizations, particularly medieval philosophy; he says he finds it fascinating to look at books that no one has read for hundreds of years.

Pasnau, a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado Boulder, has been named a 2019 Professor of Distinction in the College of Arts and Sciences. He was unable to attend last year’s award celebration, so this profile is being published with the profiles of the 2020 winners.

Robert Pasnau

Robert C. Pasnau

The 2020 winners are Elspeth Dusinberre of classics, Michelle Ellsworth of theatre and dance and Pieter Johnson and Katharine N. Suding of ecology and evolutionary biology. 

Pasnau’s research interests are epistemology (the study of knowledge) and metaphysics (the study of the nature of reality), from antiquity to modernity.

Pasnau has taught in the Department of Philosophy since 1999. His research concentrates on the history of philosophy, particularly the end of the Middle Ages and the beginnings of the modern era. 

He is the editor of the Cambridge History of Medieval Philosophy and of Oxford Studies in Medieval Philosophy. His most recent book, After Certainty: A History of Our Epistemic Ideals and Illusions (OUP 2017), is based on his Isaiah Berlin Lectures, delivered at Oxford University in 2014. 

Pasnau is the founding director of the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization and publishes a blog on medieval philosophy called In medias PHIL.

He recently answered three questions from the Colorado Arts & Sciences Magazine recently, and his responses follow:

Your scholarly work focuses on medieval philosophy, particularly focusing on mind, knowledge and metaphysics. If you were to explain to a group of high-school students why they should study medieval philosophy, what would you say? 

It’s always been a passion of mine to understand the history of human civilizations. Some of that history, like the Italian Renaissance, or ancient Greece, is very well understood, but other parts have been barely explored. 

This goes for a lot of what happened in Europe between antiquity and the Renaissance, and that’s my main focus of study. I find it fascinating to look at books that literally no one has read for hundreds of years, and to try to understand how they conceived of the world. 

In the last decade, enrollment in disciplines in the arts and humanities has dropped nationwide; assuming you would like to reverse that trend, what argument would you make to prospective students about the value of a degree in philosophy? 

Philosophy has been unusual, among the humanities, in that our enrollments have remained constant in recent years, and in some cases have gone up. I think students have realized that a lot of the problems we face today—about the nature of values like truth, objectivity and fairness—are ultimately philosophical. 

Our students are consistently among the highest performers on the LSAT and other graduate-school exams, and their average salaries, decades later, are among the highest across all majors."

We’re not going to succeed as a nation if we don’t do a better job coming to grips with these issues. Moreover, even from a purely financial point of view, philosophy majors do extremely well after graduation. 

Our students are consistently among the highest performers on the LSAT and other graduate-school exams, and their average salaries, decades later, are among the highest across all majors.  

The title “professor of distinction” is an honor reserved for scholars and artists of national and international distinction who are also recognized by their college peers as teachers and colleagues of exceptional talent; what is your reaction to winning this award?

I’m very proud to have been a professor at CU Boulder for over 20 years now, and grateful to my colleagues and the administration for providing such a supportive work environment. 

Strangely, though, receiving this honor does not exactly make me feel “recognized”—it makes me feel that I have to redouble my efforts to try to live up to the title.