The enduring appeal of ancient thought: Dr. Naly Thaler

Dr. Naly ThalerDr. Naly Thaler views the humanities as the essential bedrock upon which all universities and academic disciplines lay their foundations. The humanities remain a realm in which knowledge is pursued for its own sake, and where classical education forms an intellectual springboard for academic and professional endeavors in every imaginable field.

An alumnus of Tel Aviv and Princeton universities, Dr. Thaler is a deep believer in the Hebrew University and the Faculty of Humanities’ efforts to integrate the humanities into the general University curriculum, and views the humanities as an essential basis for broader education. “The Hebrew University has traditionally had a strong humanities orientation. There has been a decline of the humanities in Israeli academic, and this a problem which needs to be addressed. The Hebrew University can stand out as a standard-bearer for revitalization in the field,” he says. “The humanities provide a constant link to this and every other university’s reason for being. The Hebrew University started with the idea of giving pride of place to knowledge for its own sake, and the University can bring people back to that idea.”

Dr. Thaler plans on integrating this appreciation for the centrality of the humanities and the importance of a classical liberal arts education into his educational approach in the Department of Philosophy.

A former lecturer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev who took up his position at the Hebrew University at the beginning of the 2010/11 academic year, Thaler’s work concentrates on ancient philosophy, including topics such as ancient views of language, ethical theory and moral psychology. However, he sees his approach as equally divided between the standpoint of philosophy and the standpoint of classical studies. “While my training was predominantly as a philosopher among philosophers, I believe a thorough understanding of the texts I study requires a deep knowledge of the culture in which they were written and of the surrounding literature of the period. Apart from contributing to my students and colleagues in the Philosophy Department, I hope I will have the opportunity to collaborate with and contribute to the Classics Department. In line with my view about the importance of familiarity with Greek life as a precondition for understanding Greek philosophy, I see Greek philosophy as a subject that all students of Classics should want to have a strong familiarity with...”

In fact, Dr. Thaler is a strong proponent of forging connections between academic disciplines within and beyond the Faculty of Humanities. He is keen to demonstrate to students from disparate fields the ways in which a sound foundation in the humanities can provide insight into their own seemingly unrelated fields. For example, he has taught social sciences students in psychology the ways in which much of their field has been directly derived from ancient philosophy and ancient ethics. The basic notion of the soul as containing distinct and potentially conflicting motivations, a notion which is central to modern psychology, originates in Plato's ethical writings. “I think psychology students could benefit from learning how, on what grounds, and for what purpose that notion of the soul was thought up.” This approach is just one of many ways in which Dr. Thaler and the restructured Faculty of Humanities plan to bring new insights and exciting intellectual possibilities to the Hebrew University.

And, ultimately, it is that goal of fostering new ideas and helping students acquire a taste for the humanities and the chief texts of ancient philosophy which drives Dr. Thaler. “In my field, discussions raise issues that may seem difficult and obscure, but it comes back to teaching students not only to understand but to love these texts. Aristotle said that the ability to do something well is linked to enjoying it- enjoying these texts should be an inseparable part of understanding them, and I want to give my students the ability and the desire to do both. The university is supposed to open a world which may be difficult for students to approach or enjoy on their own. I look at teaching ancient philosophy like I do fine wine – reading and thinking about these texts are pleasures which require habituation and sometimes instruction in order to be fully realized, and I view my role as a professor not only as attempting to teach the relevant texts, but as enabling students to enjoy them on their own even after they have finished with their university studies.”