May 14, 2009
Vol. 28 No. 16

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    Untraditional humanist asks: What is a human being; how do we know?

    By William Harms
    News Office

    Photo by Jason Smith

    Leon Kass

    Leon Kass, who began his career as a physician and journeyed into a life of examining critical questions in the humanities, will deliver the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Jefferson Lecture on Thursday, May 21 at the Warner Theatre in Washington, D.C.

    The annual Jefferson Lecture is the most prestigious honor the federal government bestows on distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.

    “Leon Kass is an outstanding scholar, a gifted teacher and one of our nation’s leading humanists,” said NEH Acting Chairman Carole Watson. “He has brought the wisdom of the humanities to bear on many topics, from bioethics to courtship, and his dedication to undergraduate teaching in the humanities has benefited a generation of students.”

    Kass has chosen a subject that reflects his perspective as something of an untraditional humanist. He will speak on the topic, “‘Looking for an Honest Man’: Reflections of an Unlicensed Humanist.”

    “I think my particular background gives me more freedom to pursue the central questions of the humanities in a wisdom-seeking spirit,” said Kass, the Addie Clark Harding Professor in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought and the College.

    The title of his talk is drawn from the classics and refers to Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic, who is remembered for going around with a lantern looking for an honest man. Kass points out that, in the actual story, Diogenes said he was “looking for a human being,” a search that is the central study of the humanities.

    “In my lecture, I will look at fundamental questions: What is a human being, what is an honest-to-goodness human being and how do we know?” Kass said.

    The search for those answers are part of Kass’ intellectual journey, which began with his training as a physician and medical researcher, at a time when he sought to discover the biological workings of a human being.

    From medicine, he turned to philosophy to look at human nature in a way medical science could not. He then moved on to search indirectly for the meaning of our humanity through customs that fit and ennoble us in everyday life, such as those that govern eating and courtship. This part of his scholarly journey eventually led him to look at people’s understanding of the Divine, with a look at the Bible, the subject of his last book, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis.
    Kass received an S.B. in biology in 1958, and an M.D. in 1962, both from the University and a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Harvard University in 1967. After earning his Ph.D., he did research in molecular biology at the National Institutes of Health and served in the United States Public Health Service.

    Kass, who was a founding fellow of the bioethics think tank the Hastings Center, joined the Chicago faculty in 1976. From 2001 to 2005, Kass chaired the President’s Council on Bioethics.

    As chairman of the bioethics council, he oversaw the publication of several widely discussed reports, including “Human Cloning and Human Dignity: An Ethical Inquiry” (2002), “Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness” (2003), an anthology, “Being Human: Core Readings in the Humanities” (2004), as well as “Taking Care: Ethical Caregiving in Our Aging Society” (2005).

    Kass joins a distinguished list of University faculty members to give the Jefferson Lecture since it was established in 1972.

    Others include historian John Hope Franklin (1976), and former faculty members in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought: Saul Bellow (1977), Edward Shils (1979) and Leszek Kolakowski (1986). Stephen Toulmin, a former member of the Committee on Social Thought, gave the lecture in 1997.