Aaron K. Kerr, associate professor of philosophy, chair, philosophy department Gannon University
Gannon Philosophy professor Dr. Aaron K. Kerr's new book is about the renewal of thinking in a digital age; an extended meditation on the possibility of forging an environmental ethic.
Do the patterns of digital culture enhance or under-serve human
reason? Are we losing a sense of reason’s innate pull toward
integration and concrete reality? This book is an invitation to enter
the classical intellectual states of openness, wonder, receptivity, and
contemplation with deeper understanding and intentionality. By
describing, exemplifying and applying encounters in thought, the
author convenes theory and practice. In this age of media ecology,
we need deeper knowledge won in the slow orbit of reflection
about the deep ecology. Encounters in thought are precisely what
teachers, religious guides, seekers and students need in order to
apprehend the cosmos, nature, authority, truth, and moral action.
Responsibility to this ecologic age requires a reform of reason; this
book is just one attempt to convey a way toward this restoration.
Aaron K. Kerr is associate professor of philosophy at Gannon University and
chair of the philosophy department. He teaches environmental ethics and has
published in the areas of the philosophy of meaning in music, the sacred, the ethics
of technology, and the contemplative life.
Q&A with the Author:
Q: Why did you write this book?
A: In my work as a teacher and guide I had noticed the slow erosion of the ability to focus and interrogate, both
in myself and others. I started to situate this problem in the context of the history of philosophy and the
philosophy of technology. Our speculative powers must be engaged, actualized and refined if we are to
develop alternative arrangements of simplicity to steward the earth’s resources responsibly. All of us have a
desire to know and an innate curiosity which our encounters enhance. I wanted to renew the search for
meaning and purpose beyond the efficiency of devices.
Q: Why “Encounters,” why not just “Thinking beyond instrumental reason”?
A: Encounters are much more indefinite and ambiguous since they are events of relatedness. The
industrialization of culture leading up to our digital experiences has tended to isolate, fragment and decontextualize our thought, leading to what Alfred North Whitehead called the fallacy of misplaced
concreteness. We are perpetually distracted and somewhat aloof from the richness of reality. When we
presume efficiency and convenience to be the goals of human existence, we tend to cut ourselves off from
our relationships with nature, others and God. Our learning, however, is always undertaken in a relational
order or structure, if we don’t leverage that structure to enhance reason, we lose out on more creative
engagements with the problems of our time.
Q: How does the book invite the reader to go beyond instrumental reason?
A: After an introductory essay, the fruit of interviews with high-school teachers, each subsequent chapter offers
theoretical descriptions about openness, wonder, receptivity and contemplation. A description is followed
by an exemplification; Thomas Merton, Eva Saulitis, Malcolm X and St. Anselm serve as exemplars of the
integration of intellectual and moral virtue. Then, in order to offer practices for reason to flourish, I invite
the reader to reflect on daily encounters through which both understanding and analysis might become
amplified, thus theory and demonstration are applied to daily life. You can encounter the text from
theoretical, historical or practical angles, a sort of work-book or guide for a renewal of reason, beyond the
instrumentalities and commodification that tend to reduce human perception.
Q: Why did you choose the figures you did as exemplars?
A: The short answer is that I admire each exemplar because of the authenticity of their witness. When I was
younger I began reading Thomas Merton to deepen my understanding of prayer. In college, James Cone told
me that if I wanted to really understand my own racism, I should read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
As an undergrad I was introduced to Anselm’s ontological argument and have been thinking about it ever
since. I had read about Eva Saulitis in a magazine called The Sun, and was captivated by her story, wisdom
and the way she integrated poetic and scientific sensibilities.
Interview with Aaron K. Kerr
Q: How does water fit into the story you tell, beyond instrumental reason?
A: Water has been instrumentalized by what Albert Borgmann calls the device paradigm. Since it has become
commodified in this way, it is underappreciated and devalued, taken for granted. In short, we cannot put a
price on water, and when we do, we miss its elemental meaning. It is necessary to apply our speculative
powers to water, not merely as a problem of infrastructure, but also as a gift to be cherished. We have the
privilege of spending a bit of time on this watered ball, we ought to think about what it means to us, but just
as significantly, what it will mean to future generations.
Q: The book opens to readers the relationship between media and deep ecology, how do those two
ecologies impact politics and religion?
A: Power is understood today primarily through consumerism and the media ecology. Digital devices, television,
commercials, define both what power might mean, and how that power is enacted. Deep ecology is primarily
an awareness of the region which sustains us, and faith employs its relational foci of compassion, care and
justice in order to edify regional communities. When faith communities relish the regional they move beyond
the media ecology to become part of the deep ecology; what is at hand before them. Therefore, responsibility
is focused and actualized most potently where-ever you find yourself. Finding ourselves beyond instrumental
reason, we are acutely responsible for the particular regional circumstance of which we are a part.
Q: Philosopher Albert Borgmann has called this book “eminently teachable,” what do you think he
means by this?
A: I think it has to do with the consistency and simplicity of the book’s structure, with a surprise at the end.
Getting oriented to the argument is made simple because most chapters cover different ground with the
same steps. This gives people a way in because they know what to expect but it is reflexive enough that the
reader will be invited to consider carefully their own experiences, their unique encounters. Plus, we teachers
and religious guides need to renew our intellectual dispositions if we are to provide directions of foresight
for the future. Becoming a responsible thread in the fabric of culture is also exhilarating, especially when our
every-day routines are examined in light of freedom and creativity
An Excerpt from Encounters in Thought: Beyond Instrumental Reason
A focal practice, then, is something that does not “scatter our attention” nor “clutter our surroundings.”
Thirty-five years later, the quality of our times must still be wrested from the digital landscapes that crowd
our moments and often dictate our decisions. Intentional reading interrupts and invites us to breathe easier.
Reading is a cultural focal practice in renewal. For reading can always “clear a central place amid the clutter
and distraction.” And, we need to teach and learn a reading that intends to prepare for an encounter with
the book in a way that can be still enough to recognize the beginning, middle, and end of reading. To reassert
reading’s focal character, its practical purpose of becoming mindful and attentive, to stop skimming and
scanning and start encountering and exploring, we have to interrupt the digital pattern long enough to
remember and renew the refreshing salience of solitude. Consider just now books or articles you have read
in the past that remain clear in your memory. Why are they there? When you thought of the book, what was
it that you recollected? An image of the book? An image from the book? A quote, the smell of the book,
what was pressing or significant about the environment or the context in which you read the book? In what
way was reading that book enjoyable, or a struggle? Did the book confuse you at points? How did you work
your way through the confusion? All these questions are merely an amplification of what happens when we
read: inner dialogue. Inner dialogue is natural with reading, for as Borgmann has said: “The reader’s world is
diffuse and suggestive, while a virtual reality is definite and detailed.” In reading, we are inclined to a broad
search; in the virtual world we are induced to scanning for particulars. In the encounter with openness we
experience our own emptiness, and very often it is filled with a lively inner dialogue. Are we open to the
strange, constrained, perplexed, and abstract voices in our heads? When we reject or silence these
contradictions we tend to close off a possible trajectory for thought. But if our habit is to keep the voices in
a fluid conversation, we are able to see the intricacies of structure and structural connections among
competing patterns. This is so much more than possessing information. When we read slowly it is as if
consciousness is a laboratory, with an emphasis on laboratory. When you have a question for an author,
whom do you ask first? The author, who tends to be unavailable, or yourself? The point is that open interest
in ideas begins as a conversation with yourself. It is as though there are a multiplicity of identities within
when you engage in an inner dialogue via literate encounter. Inner dialogue is necessary for open thinkers if
for no other reason than you articulate a variety of factors and even understandings in an effort to discern
the best among them. An open reader is always asking questions; some the text can answer, and we read
along searching. Some are constantly asked and the most credible answer can only come from within. But
we have to remain open.
Praise for Encounters in Thought: Beyond Instrumental Reason
“In Encounters in Thought: Beyond Instrumental Reason, Aaron K. Kerr interrogates the effects of contemporary
technological culture on how humans think. Stating that we have settled into a pattern of ‘thinking more and
more about less and less,’ Kerr asks us to rinse our mind with genuine practices of openness, wonder,
receptivity, and contemplation. Kerr provides a rigorous philosophical meditation on the significance of
water to human life and an example of contemplative inquiry praxis.”
—Annette M. Holba, Plymouth State University
“We live in a time that’s alluring with its promises and uncertain with its prospects. We find ourselves floating
in its currents. Aaron Kerr gently pulls us to firm ground, letting us see where the firm ground is flourishing
and that there is a tradition of people who disclose to us the splendor of the simple. At the same time, Kerr’s
book is clearly structured and eminently teachable.”
—Albert Borgmann, author of Real American Ethics
“In this wise, wide-ranging book, drawing on models as disparate as Anselm of Canterbury and Malcolm X,
Aaron Kerr encourages us to move beyond the passivity of digital distractions and the narrowness of
pragmatic, often exploitative technologism to develop a ‘synergy of mind and heart,’ to recover essential
qualities of openness, wonder, receptivity, and contemplation that lead both to authentic personal integration
and to creative engagement with the critical problems of our time. The invitation to accompany him on these
challenging, exhilarating explorations is an opportunity not to be missed!”
—Patrick F. O’Connell, editor, The Merton Seasonal
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