Professor Bill Talbott reflects on a career of practical inquiry

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William Talbott

To Bill Talbott, philosophy was never an abstract calling. Rather, the discipline he recognized for its real-world potential drove a career of inquiry and education, one with practical applications and urgent stakes. 

As a professor of philosophy at the University of Washington, and through his published works, Talbott has informed students and scholars as he has informed change. It’s a testament to the holistic decision-making process he championed, in which previously siloed faculties of reason and emotion can coexist. And today, through the lens of decidedly not-abstract issues – rampant misinformation and a dearth of critical thinking amid a global pandemic; unchecked cognitive biases; socioeconomic and human rights crises – Talbott’s legacy of practical inquiry is not just important, it’s vital.

To Talbott, this calling is more urgent than ever. “I have had an unusual career,” he reflects. After receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1976, he took a decade-plus break to help raise his family, settling in the Pacific Northwest with his wife. In the “publish or perish” realm of academia, Talbott understood the risk of such a gap on his CV. “I decided that if I had a choice between having an academic career and not being able to spend time with my children when they were young…” he recalls, adding, “It worked out really well for me.” He joined the faculty at UW in 1988.

Over the ensuing 33 years of teaching, Talbott’s work has proven instrumental for generations of teachers, social justice advocates and stewards of human rights. Along with his undergraduate and graduate-level course offerings at UW – which spanned political and legal philosophy, ethics, global justice and epistemology – he has written important books in these areas, including Human Rights and Human Well-Being and the recent Learning From Our Mistakes: Epistemology for the Real World. Talbott has also been a central figure in the UW Center for Human Rights and the Human Interactions: Normative Innovation (HI-NORM) research cluster.

To chat with the newly retired Talbott is to engage in a crash course in his life’s work – a searching discussion about normative judgment, the proof paradigm, cultural relativism and practical rationality, among other heady subjects. Despite the complexity of his research interest, Talbott’s impassioned approach to philosophical inquiry is ultimately welcoming. 

Throughout his career Talbott both evolved and broke with tenets of the standard Western approach. His mode of inquiry “complicates the traditional philosophical picture,” Talbott explains, “which is, we draw a line: On one side is reason, on the other is emotion. Reason deals with true and false, emotions deal with feelings.” He pauses. “I say to students, ‘Let’s blow up that picture.’ That’s a lot of what I do.” 

“We’re going to explore these questions fresh,” Talbott continues, “not trapped by presuppositions that have framed so much of the discourse. We keep the space open to possibilities.”

In tandem with this intrinsic openness, Talbott stresses the value of real-world prompts. “Otherwise it’s so abstract that you no longer have any sense of what’s at stake,” he notes. Talbott structures a two-pronged, “bottom-up reasoning” in which an example or case study is followed by philosophical reflection. This deliberate departure from the armchair pontificator of yore and a linear top-down methodology has guided and profoundly shaped his students.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that Bill had a majestic presence in the classroom,” says Dr. Amy Reed-Sandoval, a former graduate student and TA. “As he lectured about human rights – focusing on both the philosophical ideas that underpin them, and a range of concrete, wrenching examples of human rights abuses – one could hear a pin drop in his lecture hall. It was clear that Bill deeply, truly cared about this material, and didn't merely approach it as a philosophical game.” Now Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Reed-Sandoval says this spirit inspired his students. “I cannot imagine a kinder, more generous, and more committed teacher and mentor.”

Fellow UW alumnus Jason Vilaysanh praises Talbott for giving him “the philosophical vocabulary to reflect my own moral core.” Vilaysanh credits Talbott’s undergraduate course, Philosophy of Human Rights, and his 2005 book, Which Rights Should be Universal?, with changing his worldview. “Although I was interested in philosophy prior to engaging with Professor Talbott’s work, most of what I had read felt separated from the real world and sat solely in the realm of theory. His work dealt with theory, history, and practice.” Vilaysanh is now an attorney for the Northwest Justice Project, where he says his experience with Talbott – which manifested in student organizing, activism and volunteering – continues to resonate.

The work of inquiry evolves constantly, and beyond the classroom. “In my courses, philosophy is a kind of intellectual exploration in which students are exposed to different philosophical views and are expected to work out their positions based on their own judgment of what it makes the most sense to believe,” Talbott explains. “There is no expectation that the class will come to unanimous agreement, quite the contrary.  

“If you just contribute to the conversation and get it going – new ideas, a new direction – that’s what philosophy is,” he says. “It’s not giving proofs, it’s not settling questions once and for all, it’s just trying to make improvements to understanding.” 

Graduate alumna Dr. Eun-Jung Kim shares, “To go through his course is to follow a storyline. He makes learning feel adventurous. I walked into his epistemology course as a striving historian, about to finish a Master of Arts in East Asian History, and walked out at the end of the semester as a budding philosopher. At the end of the course, I felt as if I would miss out on something exciting if I didn’t pursue philosophy.” Kim, now Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich., adds, “I owe my academic career to Professor Talbott, full stop.” 

Looking back on his legacy, Talbott is humbled. “One thing that’s fun about teaching philosophy is that there will be always be students who will be interested and fall in love with it if you just give them the opportunity,” he offers. “That means opening the subject up to them. Don’t close it off.” That said, he has observed of late a growing, active student body – one motivated by social justice, climate change, voting rights and other headlines. “Connect philosophy to the real world,” he states, “and you’ll find a good audience anywhere.”

Talbott retired from UW in 2021 amid the realities of Covid-era remote learning and, most significantly, a diagnosis of lung cancer. “It’s been an amazing experience, like riding a roller coaster,” he says of the present challenges. Still, he is grateful – and looking forward to the inquiry yet to be done. “Today, in the world outside philosophy, there is so much irrationality that the opportunities for applications of my life’s work to the real world are, for practical purposes, unlimited.” 

“Now, in retirement,” Talbott considers, “I realize that I will always be a teacher.” 

Written by Amanda Schurr

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