The next stage of Kass’s education was the “educational prejudice” he acquired at the University of Chicago “in favor of discussing the great questions and reading the Great Books.” There he was inspired by the “exemplary” dignity of the life devoted to teaching. He was also was inspired by the “Socratic spirit” that led to philosophic questioning of even the natural sciences, to the asking of questions that scientists ignore about what makes a living being a unified whole animated by a natural soul.


But his prejudice in favor of those questions was no more than that, and they, in fact, “lay dormant” as he pursued “the path of science.” From the beginning, however, he knew “something was missing” from the self-understanding of physicians and scientists. They were unable to concern themselves properly with the whole who is a particular human being, a being born to die. So they were unable to think in terms of personal health-or living well as a mortal with an embodied soul. Because “the tacit goal of medicine” seemed to be “bodily immortality,” even the healthy human being was viewed as a defective model to be transformed into something better. Death is not part of who we are but “tragedy that future medical research will prevent.”


Kass discovered through his personal experience that he was, from one view, more of a humanist than a scientist. He “found that I loved my patients and their stories more than I loved solving the puzzles of their diseases.” His fellow scientists “found disease fascinating,” but he found particular people fascinating, especially “how they struggled with suffering.” Solving puzzles is the particular pleasure of the impersonal scientist and the philosopher; loving or even personally identifying with the tough personal struggles of patients or interlocutors was not even a characteristic of Socrates. Kass, the scientist, “tasted the great pleasures of independent discovery” during “the golden age of molecular biology,” but those, it seems, were never his greatest pleasures or deepest concerns. Kass’s distinctive concerns must have continued to owe something to the personal decency of his “saintly” and “moralist” parents, as much to his exposure to the questioning characteristic of Great Books Theirs, because of their quasi-religious community, was not the kind of quasi-socialism that abstracted from the greatness and misery of ordinary persons.


Kass adds that he “hated the autopsy room, not out of fear of death, but because the post mortem exam could never answer my question: What happened to my patient?” The medical explanation of the cause of death “was utterly incommensurable with the awesome massive fact” he could see with his own eyes. Death is “the extinction of this never-to-be repeated human being, for whom I had cared and for whom his survivors now grieve.” Science is incapable of wondering properly about both the reality of and the utter disappearance of the unique and irreplaceable person. Our desire to know is not properly animated without some assistance from personal care and grief.


It would seem that, from the beginning, Kass was a humanistic dissenter from a scientific consensus about the true relationship between eros and logos . (I know I promised Rousseau and all that. Next time . . . )

Articles by Peter Lawler

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