Eric Kandel on the Importance of Charlie Rose

November 3, 2008

On Wednesday, October 29, 2008, the Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute presented Emmy Award–winning journalist and interviewer Charlie Rose with the 2008 David Mahoney Prize. The presentation followed a symposium on memory and mental disorders featuring Harvard University provost and neuroscientist Steven E. Hyman and Nobel Laureate Eric R. Kandel, moderated by Rose. At the symposium, Kandel introduced the award recipient. The following is his written transcript.

It is a pleasure for me to introduce Charlie Rose, who will moderate the conversation this evening. Charlie is a friend of mine and I have had the privilege of working with him on occasion over the last several years. So I have gotten to know Charlie. But in the cause of listening [to] and watching the extraordinary set of programs he has put together in recent months, I have had a chance to see him in a new perspective and to appreciate how much Charlie has evolved over the last two years since he recovered from heart surgery. Thinking about the expansion in the scope and the depth of his programs over those years has given me a new insight into Charlie Rose. As a result of that insight, I want to make the argument tonight that all of us, including myself, and perhaps even Charlie Rose, have had a misconception of the role he has now assumed in the current cultural discourse.

‘Charlie has made us realize we are all neural scientists’ Charlie, a North Carolina–born and Duke University–trained lawyer of great intelligence, charm and insatiable curiosity, is seen by all as the major interviewer of our time. He is the person who attracts the finest minds to his table and substitutes intelligent conversation for sound bites on television. But to celebrate Charlie for this alone would be to miss a key point. I would make the argument that Charlie is not simply a talented interviewer but that he has emerged as the major cultural and intellectual historian of recent times and that he has done so by causing a paradigm shift in how we learn—in how we acquire new knowledge of what is happening in the world around us and what is happening in the life of the mind.

Through his relaxed yet intellectually focused televised conversations, Charlie has confronted us with a new way of acquiring knowledge that in the past we could only obtain in a distributed manner, by reading the separate writings of the eminent intellectuals: Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Doris Kearns Goodwin on American history, Ernst Gombrich on art, Susan Sontag on photography and kitsch, Pauline Kael on the movies, David Halberstam on baseball, Joyce Carol Oates on boxing, and Horace Judson, Jonathan Weiner, Richard Rhodes, and Walter Isaacson on science. Charlie brings to us at one table the voices of expertise in all of these areas of interest and knowledge by letting us meet informally the great thinkers and social actors of our time. But, in addition, he brings to his table a new level of analysis—a new perspective that allows us to compare and above all, to synthesize new knowledge. Let me elaborate on this point and try to put my view of Charlie's work into a broader perspective.

One can well argue that the history of science, indeed the history of all thought, is a history of attempts to unify knowledge. This utopian search for universals was referred to by Isaiah Berlin as the "Ionian Enchantment" because the search had its origin with Thales of Miletus, the Ionian Greek philosopher, in the seventh century B.C. While contemplating the blue waters of the Ionian Sea, Thales searched for the fundamental principles of the natural world. His quest for unifying principles has carried through to this day and is embodied in the thinking of E.O. Wilson, who popularized the idea of “consilience,” a unification of knowledge.

In our time this drive for unifying principles has often been thwarted by the perceived schism between opposing disciplines that gave rise to the crisis of 1959. In that year C.P. Snow, the physicist-turned-novelist, gave his Rede Lecture entitled "The Two Cultures," in which he described the gulf of mutual incomprehension and hostility between scientists, concerned with the nature of the universe, and humanists, concerned with the nature of human experience. In the 50 years since Snow's lecture, the gulf separating these two cultures has in fact somewhat narrowed. And one of the people who has most effectively bridged this gulf is Charlie Rose.

We recognize Charlie tonight because he has introduced to the public the most important issues in modern science and highlighted their intersection with the broader culture. In addition, he has wiped out the distinction between highbrow and lowbrow art, he has torn down the wall between physics and music, between sport, film, theater and history, and he has taught us about the social psychology of elections and economic crises. There is no one who matches his skill in extracting what is most interesting and universal in each of these human activities and using it as a focused topic for an intelligent conversation.

Yet, I would argue, he has done something even more influential. Charlie has done more than anyone else in public life to expose us to the possibility that, someday in the distant future, we might aspire to achieve a coherent set of unifying principles. It is as yet impossible to know whether such principles can, in fact, emerge, or even what the most productive areas of unification are likely to be. But more than anyone, Charlie has exposed us to what might be unified. He has taught us about the raw intellectual materials that might be brought together. He has fostered the discussions and comparisons that expose us to the commonalities among the various human and societal endeavors. He has provided a nightly forum for the enjoyment and the unification of knowledge.

In achieving this paradigm shift in how we acquire knowledge about the world, Charlie has made us realize that all these activities share one thing in common: they are all products of the human mind. This is their point of unification—their consilience. In this sense Charlie has made us realize that we are all neural scientists. We have all been captivated by the workings of the human mind, especially when seen in the context of a Charlie Rose roundtable.

So Charlie, I am delighted that you could join us tonight for a discussion on the human mind and some of its disorders. And I am pleased that we can use this occasion to recognize you for who you are: the person who, more than anyone of our generation, has encouraged our understanding of all human actions and behavior so that we can at least strive to gain a fuller understanding of the life of the mind, if not actually achieve its consilience through an Ionian Enchantment.

Charlie, we welcome you to this table.