What John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University Has to Teach Us

University Church of St Mary the Virgin, where John Henry Newman became vicar in 1828. Photo by Arnaud Malon.

We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars will present and discuss at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.

Reinhard Hütter is Professor of Christian Theology at The Catholic University of America and Duke University.

In my last paper I argued that any robust philosophical, let one, theological account of happiness and self-transcendence presupposes an account of finality or teleology. I advanced the case that without an antecedent understanding of the specific nature and the distinct finality of the human person, it is rather futile to gain clarity about the nature of authentic happiness, of genuine self-transcendence and last, but not least, about the question of a perfect continuous state of ek-static bliss, surpassingly fulfilled self-transcendence, or, what the Catholic tradition calls, the beatific vision. Hidden disagreements on this fundamental metaphysical level (human beings are not persons but at best super-primates; they do not have rational souls, but the mind is an epiphenomenon of neurological processes; the universe is bereft of finality, because there does not exist a transcendent First Cause and Final End, usually called God) give rise to notions of happiness that are not only philosophically underdetermined but mutually exclusive, if not simply equivocal. I held that one important step toward a clarification of these matters is a straightforward description of a particular, comprehensive account of finality, self-transcendence, and happiness, an account that lays bare its philosophical and theological first principles.

In this paper I take another step by addressing one of the most daunting contemporary obstacles to a rigorous and comprehensive inquiry into the nature of happiness, self-transcendence, and the meaning of life—the late modern research university and its self-imposed limitation to the empirically falsifiable supported by a tacit but tenacious commitment to what can be variously described as the immanent frame, secularism, instrumentalism, and the privileging of the quantifiable and computable as the proper object of what is a “true” science. It is unavoidable that inquiries that transcend this self-imposed limitation of reason, because of their allegedly non-scientific character, are banned from the public space of university discourse and relegated to the realm of the subjective, to the private space of individual curiosity. Or such inquiries must be transformed in such a way that they fit the immanentist and empiricist framework. Certain disciplines (the sad and interiorly disarrayed remnant of the “humanities”) that engage in such inquiries may exist on the margins of the university as historically descriptive, textually interpretive, and conceptually analytic enterprises that may contribute, next to rigorous disciplines like mathematics and cybernetics, to a soft but still in some ways not completely useless propaedeutic to the real work of science. This reality is challenged by an understanding of the university as an institution that essentially engages the whole breadth of reason and does not deny its grandeur in any shape or form. It is in such a university, I suggest, where inquiries into happiness, virtue, and the meaning of life stand at the very center of what a university is about. It is John Henry Newman who articulates the idea of such a university with a still unsurpassed clarity and force.

VIDEO: Talbot Brewer, “What Good Are The Humanities?”

On Wednesday, December 14, 2016, at the University of South Carolina Law School, our scholar and philosopher Talbot Brewer, gave the talk, “What Good are the Humanities?”

The president of University of South Carolina, Harris Pastides, delivered the introductory address, and a Q&A followed the talk. To view the talk, click the image below or go to http://virtue.uchicago.edu/brewer.

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talbTalbot Brewer is Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Virginia and a Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life. He specializes in ethics and political philosophy, with particular attention to moral psychology and Aristotelian ethics. He is the author of numerous essays, including “Reflections on the Cultural Commons” (in Nestor García, ed, Being Human in a Consumerist Society, 2014), “Two Pictures of Practical Thinking” (in Jost and Wuerth, eds, Perfecting Virtue, 2011), “Is Welfare an Independent Good?” (Social Philosophy & Policy 26, 2009), “Three Dogmas of Desire” (in Chappell, ed, Values and Virtues, 2007), “Virtues We Can Share: A Reading of Aristotle’s Ethics” (Ethics 115, 2005), “Two Kinds of Commitments (And Two Kinds of Social Groups)” (Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 66, 2003), and “Maxims and Virtues” (The Philosophical Review 3, 2002). He has been a visiting professor in the Harvard University Philosophy Department and has authored two books, the most recent of which is The Retrieval of Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2009). He is currently at work on two books, one on Aristotelian action theory and its intersection with ethics, and another on a phenomenon that he calls “tragedies of the cultural commons”.

Holiday Greetings from our Scholars

December 2016 Working Group Meeting with (most of) the scholars of VHML: (from left) Josef Stern, Heather Lench, Kristján Kristjánsson, Jennifer Frey, Fr Thomas Joseph White, Dan McAdams, Candace Vogler, Marc Berman, Darcia Narvaez, Owen Flanagan, Angela Knobel, Reinhard Huetter, Michael Gorman, Paul Wong, Talbot Brewer, David Shatz.
Photo by Valerie Wallace.

December 14, 2016 | Talbot Brewer, “What Good are the Humanities?” | Streaming Live @ University of South Carolina


Wednesday, December 14, 2016, 5:30pm  | University of South Carolina Law School, 701 Main Street, Columbia

Please join us, or watch livestreamed https://virtue.uchicago.edu/brewer at 5:30 EST/4:30CST.

Talbot Brewer, a professor from the University of Virginia, and a scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life, will speak at 5:30 p.m. at the University of South Carolina in the School of Law auditorium. His talk, titled “What Good are the Humanities?” is part of a research project that brings together scholars from around the world to study the facts that lead to happiness and the meaning of life. The event, which is free and open to the public and includes a reception.

The president of University of South Carolina, Harris Pastides, will deliver an introductory address. A reception will follow the Q & A. Free and open to the public. RSVP requested.

Brewer says it’s not the world’s pace or its constant barrage of words and images that keeps people from finding meaning in literature, art or philosophy. It’s the struggle for people to adjust and sustain their attention and quiet their minds.

“By creating a space within that we can nurture such habits of mind and put them to their proper use, we make room for a kind of self-cultivation that has become increasingly rare, despite all the lip service we pay to authentic self-expression,” says Brewer, a professor and chairman of UVA’s philosophy department and a specialist in ethics, political philosophy and moral psychology.

Connecting with human emotion and the human condition through art, theater or literature can give meaning to one’s own life, Brewer says.

“When pursued in the right spirit, the humanities can deepen one’s experience of life, and that is an enormous gift,” he says.

This event is made possible by a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation for the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life, and co-sponsored by the Center for Value, Law, and the Humanities at the University of South Carolina.


For more information, contact: Valerie Wallace, Associate Director, Communications
Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life

What is the role of friendship in human flourishing?

For our December 2016 Working Group Meeting, the question I’m asking is, What is the role of friendship in human flourishing?

“friendship”. Photo by Mario Mancuso

In the Aristotelian-scholastic tradition, moral or ethical goodness is understood to be crucially related to the flourishing or full actualization of human persons: the idea, to a first approximation, is that a fully good human is a human who is fully carrying out a full range of human operations. This proposal could be understood in a rather individualistic way, as the thought that the good person is the one who is doing best for himself.

That this has not been the traditional understanding is fairly easy to show, if only by pointing to the fact that of the ten books of the Nicomachean Ethics, one is devoted to justice and two to friendship. Nonetheless, I think there is an under-explored aspect of the tradition’s non-individualistic side, and exploring it is the goal of my research for our next meeting.

I am interested in the idea that some of the activities that one can engage in as part of living excellently are, in a very strong sense, activities that cannot be engaged in individualistically. In some cases, that is, the activities that contribute to goodness are not merely activities that an individual can’t do well without others, and also not merely activities that an individual can’t do unless other individuals are doing them too, but activities that can’t be done by individuals at all, but only by two people or more.

Michael Gorman is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America and a Scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.