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Department of Philosophy
logoHugh Wilder
Lifetime Passion for Learning
By Sara Gardocki

"I love to teach, because I love to learn,"Wilder says. "I try to instill this love of learning in all of my students."

Wilder grew up surrounded by academics, and at an early age was inspired to become a teacher. His father was a university librarian and his grandfather was an English professor and dean. Growing up around academics was a major influence in deciding on his career, but it was an undergraduate professor that introduced him to philosophy.

Wilder ended up with an undergraduate degree in philosophy by what he describes as an accident. Tired of all his high school math courses, he took a logic class to fulfill a general education requirement. He ended up with a professor who would become his mentor and who inspired him to receive his B.A. in philosophy from Denison University in Ohio and later his master's degree and doctorate, both in philosophy, at the University of Western Ontario.

"The professor took a strong personal interest in his students and showed no mercy," Wilder says. "He challenged me, I did not always get As."

Wilder and his mentor have kept in touch over the years and have worked on research projects together. He gives advice to students to go for good professors, because they can have an impact on what you study.

Wilder's research interests are in aesthetics and philosophy of the mind. He is also interested in areas where the two overlap. For example, Wilder expresses the differentiation between imagination and perception and how they are intertwined in our experiences of art.

Wilder feels that both are crucial in our everyday lives and that perception shows us how the world is while imagination tells us how the world could be. He says perception reveals the beauty and the problems; without perception, we would not see the problems. Without imagination, we could not see how to solve the problems and how to make the world a better place.

"Human perception isn't just the passive reception of information," Wilder says. "Perception is active and searching; it is affected by expectation and involves selective focus and attention; perception shapes our thoughts but is also itself shaped by our thoughts."

A second topic that Wilder is also interested in is cognitive ethology, the study of animal minds. Wilder questions such theories as to the reasons that philosophers have so often denied the existence of (non-human) animal minds and the prospects for human understanding of (any) non-human minds. Wilder says he became interested in experiments which attempted to teach sign language to chimpanzees and began wondering how unique language use is to human beings. Bringing science to bear on old philosophical questions seemed like a promising approach. Cognitive ethology demonstrates that many non-human animals have pretty interesting mental lives.

Wilder is the co-editor of "Language in Primates" (Springer Verlag, 1983) and the author of articles about the philosophy of language, epistemology, esthetics and philosophy of mind. He has published in The Canadian Journal of Philosophy, The Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Philosophical Studies, Metaphilosophy, Social Epistemology, Philosophy and Literature, and elsewhere. Wilder also held a year-long fellowship in philosophy at Princeton University awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (1976-77) and has been a participant in several NEH Summer Seminars and Institutes.

Wilder recently was part of setting up the College of Charleston's First Year Experience. The First Year Experience is a program for freshman that helps them adjust to college. Students are able to pick from different topic areas that interest them. Wilder teaches a section titled Animal Rights, Animal Minds. In this section students study the ethics of animals and the mental capacities of animals. They consider questions like: Do animals feel pain? How do you feel about eating them?

"This class is a lot of fun to teach," Wilder says. "A direct way to combine my research to teaching."

Another successful class that Wilder has brought to the College of Charleston was Sport and Ethics. After first starting the class eight years ago, it has become a hard class to get a seat. Many student-athletes at the college take the class. This semester there are over 10 different athletic teams represented in the class. The class is a chance for a lot of athletes to think personally about issues in sports. This course helps athletes realize they are dealing with ethical issues. It also gives them a chance to see how academics think about athletics.

"I am still really happy with the course," Wilder says. "The class is not everyone's cup of tea and many take it because they are athletes."

Kayln Cogswell, a student in Wilder's Sports and Ethics said, "Dr. Wilder really loves what he is teaching us and it shows. His class is by far one of my favorites I have taken at the College of Charleston."

Wilder's passion for athletics comes from his own background of competitive swimming. He competed as a student-athlete at Denison University during his undergraduate career. Today, he still competes with a local Masters team that goes to national and international meets. He holds four world records in the 60-65 age group in the backstroke events. His favorite part about swimming is the friendships he has made around the country, as well as getting to compete.

Wilder will be retiring from teaching this semester after almost 40 years as a college professor. He is planning on moving to California with his wife. They have spent most summer breaks visiting friends there. Wilder is both excited and nervous about retirement.

(Contributions to this article made by Monica M. Rasnick)