By Richard Burnett
When he was a teenager, Zack Isrow devoured the works of classic philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Martin Heidegger, while many of his peers were reading the latest Avengers comic. At age 15, he began writing a treatise about contemporary philosophy’s view of human existence.
Today, Dr. Zachary Isrow is making his mark as an author with his recently-published volume entitled “The Spectricity of Humanness.” The rollout comes nearly 15 years after his ideas first took shape when he was in high school.
“I started this long, voluminous project at about age 14 or 15, with the idea that it could be used in my doctoral dissertation,” said Isrow, an assistant professor and coordinator of humanities at Beacon College. “This book is the fundamental building block of the project, which now involves a series of four books I’m writing on this theme and the question of humanness.”
That topic propelled Isrow throughout his collegiate career, from a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Aurora (Ill.) University and master’s in liberal arts from the University of Chicago, to a doctorate in humanities from Alma Mater Europeaea, a prestigious international college based in Salzberg, Austria.
Along the way, he refined his insights into what makes us human — a subject that has languished in much of contemporary philosophy, according to Isrow. He brings it center stage in his new book, an amplified version of his doctoral dissertation. It is targeted for the education market, i.e. scholars, institutes and libraries.
“Ever since I read Kant in high school, I knew that the question of humanness was not only a matter of doing anthropological field work,” he said. “It was an urgent quest to answer the question of who we really are as humans. That question really, really pulled at me. So I just kept reading everything I could find until I could formulate my own views on it. That’s how this whole thing [the book] started.”
Breaking new ground
The end result is a work that seeks to break new ground, with its premise that humanness is expressed in “spectricity,” or a spectrum of influences, from other beings and objects to “hyper-beings” such as forces of nature. That compelling approach landed him a publishing deal with De Gruyter, a leading worldwide publisher of philosophy books.
Isrow draws from historic philosophers and modern trends such as speculative realism and object-oriented ontology, while also critiquing them and introducing his own concept — spectral ontology — to define human nature. In his view, both historic and contemporary philosophers have fallen short of addressing the question of what makes us what we are.
On his earliest influences — Kant and Heidegger — for example, Isrow writes in his book: “I suggest that a critique of humanness is what both philosophies have been lacking to make them complete.”
His intellectual grit, research acumen and command of the field has paved the way for Isrow’s success as a first-time author to publish his dissertation, said his mentor Dr. Graham Harman, an internationally known philosopher and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles.
“Zack’s dissertation was both ambitious and original,” said Harman, who sat on Isrow’s dissertation committee. “He set out to develop a philosophical anthropology, meaning a type of philosophy that specifically seeks to clarify human beings from other organisms, and indeed from other objects in the universe altogether.
“Usually, academic publishers do not like to publish dissertations without extensive reworking, so it is somewhat rare though not unheard of for this to happen,” he added. “It’s a nice achievement for Zack.”
Philosophy for breakfast?
Isrow traces his origins as a philosopher back to his formative years, having lively philosophical talks with his parents when he was growing up. He remembers having breakfast with his father, an Air Force officer with a science degree, and mother, a developmental psychologist, who would give him complicated problem scenarios to solve.
“As a result, I was never one to shy away from debate and heavy topics in high school,” he said. “Sometimes, that put me at odds with teachers when I would disagree with them. I just didn’t like being told what to think.”
Now that he’s on the other side of the lectern, Isrow contemplates how he might integrate parts his new book into a course he teaches at Beacon called “The Human Condition and Future of Humanity.”
“There will be some readings on Heidegger and Kant, and I’ll also throw in a section on Dr. Harman,” he said. “I might toss in a small segment of my critiques of Heidegger and Kant. But honestly my book is not too textbook-friendly for these classes. It’s really more useful for the professional philosophy community.”