Violence, Redemption, and the Liberal Imagination

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This is an excerpt of Introduction: Violence, Redemption, and the Liberal Imagination by Candace Vogler and Patchen Markell. Public Culture, Volume 15, Number 1, Winter 2003, pp. 1-10 (Article) Published by Duke University Press. The full article is available here.

 

Violence haunts liberal political thought. The defining image of early modern European social contract theory—and an image that remains potent in contemporary contractarian moral and political theory—locates the possibility of civil society in a compact among men who are long accustomed to the use of force in the bloody business of self-assertion and self-preservation. These men, so the story goes, surrender their right to fight one another (and to dominate the defenseless), investing a common, sovereign power with the right to command obedience for the sake of peace, justice, prosperity, and reasonable expectations of security. In turn, their consent legitimates this common power—the state—at least as long as its use of coercion serves the welfare and good future of a voluntarily toothless citizenry.

 

This is an image of redemption from violence. Casting the state as the bringer of peace and prosperity into a disorderly world, this picture replays, in secular terms, the Christian theme of an epochal transformation in the human condition that the Oxford English Dictionary unsurprisingly lists as the first definition of redemption: “deliverance from sin and its consequences by the atonement of Jesus Christ.” At the same time, however, this is also an image in which violence persists, though often reorganized, renamed, or repressed. While the liberal state aims to control our violent tendencies by depriving us of the right to use force against one another, it also takes into itself the right to use violence in pursuit of this goal, exemplifying the capacity of redemptive aspirations not only to suppress but also to motivate and direct the coercive use of force. And often to disguise it: when one arm of society is elevated to a position of dominance over, and putative difference from, all others, its uses of force can easily come to be euphemized—as “patient justice,” for example, something altogether different from the pathological “violence” it combats. Similarly, since the liberal state thus conceived derives its legitimacy from the lingering threat of interpersonal violence, its redemptive promise must coexist, uneasily, with a portrait of the liberal individual as a very dangerous person. Without the benefit of a coercive sovereign power holding everyone in check, the liberal individual will use any means necessary in the pursuit of material benefits, will struggle to the death for the sake of recognition, honor, or self-esteem, and can have no good reason to expect decent treatment from his fellows.

 

In short, even in one ideal world of liberal political imagination—a world where all questions of legitimate authority are addressed in foro interno, where no one is expected to give up anything without good reason, where superstitious dread and vainglory are banished and rational scrutiny holds sway, where each citizen can reject or accept governance and will allow considerations of peace and prosperity to decide the matter, and where every state is established for the sake of the common weal—the potential for coercion, cruelty, outrage, disorder, and brokenness are abiding aspects of social life. This seam in the liberal imagination points to the need to broaden our sense of the ways in which the terms violence and redemption are tied to each other. For example, how does the pursuit of redemption from violence relate to the pursuit of redemption through violence? Or, recalling that redemption may also refer to more mundane acts of buying back, freeing, recovering, or making recompense for some particular loss or wrong, we might wish to distinguish between redemption from violence—the radical deliverance of humanity from the affliction of violence as such—and those concrete acts of compensation and counterbalance that, in assigning meaning and value to violence suffered, enable agents to project possible futures (though not necessarily fundamentally transfigured ones) in its wake. To survive violence, to find a way forward under its weight: is this less or more radical than to dream of overcoming violence in a final, exceptional stroke?

 

Some of the essays collected in this special issue were originally presented in fall 2001 at a conference organized by the Late Liberalism Project at the University of Chicago’s Center for Gender Studies in conjunction with the Center for Transcultural Studies. The Late Liberalism Project was initiated in 1998 by a group of scholars from across the humanities and social sciences who shared an interest in the intersection between liberal ideas and social forms, as well as a frustration with the usual ways of approaching that intersection. Liberalism is often treated either as a set of norms or principles (typically rooted in foundational moral or political theory) or as a constellation of institutions, practices, movements, identifications, and modes of affect and desire. This is a troubling division of labor, founded on a distinction (itself greatly valued by some liberals) between the mobility of abstraction and the immobilizing grip of the concrete. Too often, this division merely sustains a tired controversy between those who celebrate the power of liberalism’s normative content to transcend its own historical limitations and those for whom the history of liberalism’s concrete social forms merely reveals the essential bankruptcy of liberal ideas. It was unclear to us that the customary ways of separating concrete from abstract matters could be sustained in the face of careful historical work on liberal forms. Moreover, the whole of the intellectual conversation about liberalism tended to focus on North American and European contexts. We wanted to open a different kind of conversation about liberalism.

 

Seeing ourselves as neither partisans of “the liberal project” nor its debunkers, we resolved to consider more carefully the relations among liberal ideas, liberal desires and aspirations, and liberal forms, giving special attention both to liberalism’s colonial and postcolonial contexts and to the relationship between liberalism and globalization. Through what dynamics of imagination and desire do certain institutions and practices come to represent liberal ideas? What modes of feeling and subjectivity have liberal ideas authorized, opposed, or rendered unintelligible? How are liberal ideas themselves disseminated, multiplied, or transformed through the reproduction of the social forms in which they are vested? How do emergent, alternative social forms and ideas interact with various strands or species of liberalism? Do they inflect liberal ideas and practices? Are they deflected or suffocated by them? The essays collected in this issue attend to this nexus of idea, desire, and practice across a number of different social and historical contexts. Zeroing in on the relationship between redemptive promises and the organization, experience, and effects of violence, these essays study the ways in which ethically charged political desire, both liberal and nonliberal, sometimes organizes violence and sometimes attempts to heal the breach that comes in its wake.

 

Read full article is available here.

Register for the eighth annual Thomas Aquinas Philosophy Workshop, “Aquinas on Divine Attributes”

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June 14, 2018 – June 17, 2018
Mount Saint Mary College

The Catholic and Dominican Institute’s Eighth Annual Philosophy Workshop, “Aquinas on Divine Attributes,” will be held at Mount Saint Mary College on June 14-17, 2018.

The Catholic intellectual tradition has staunchly maintained that God’s existence can be known by reason alone and long heralded St. Thomas Aquinas’s Five Ways as prime examples of plausible demonstrations. This year’s workshop on the divine attributes will serve as a robust introduction to Aquinas’s natural theology for the Thomistic beginner and a speculative advancement for the veteran. Specific divine attributes will be explored as well as the broader issues of the possibility of knowledge of God in this life and divine naming.

Presenters include:

  • Anna Bonta Moreland, Villanova University
  • Fr. Stephen Brock, Pontifical University of the Holy Cross
  • Brian Carl, PhD, Dominican House of Studies
  • Michael Gorman, PhD, The Catholic University of America
  • Josh Hochschild, PhD, Mount St. Mary’s University
  • James Madden, PhD, Benedictine College
  • Fr. Raymund Snyder, OP, Thomistic Institute
  • Candace Vogler, PhD, University of Chicago

This event is sponsored by the Catholic and Dominican Institute at Mount Saint Mary College; the Thomistic Institute at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.; and the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture in Indiana.

Want to learn more? Download the conference brochure.

Registration

Click here to register online. Space for this workshop is limited and registration will close before May 7 if seats are full.

For more information, please email cdi@msmc.edu

Today: Stream Candace Vogler’s interview on “Positivity Matters”

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“Translating wellbeing research into positive community experiences.”

Nick Hernandez will interview Candace Vogler at 11:30 am central time today, March 19 on KZUM Community Matters for the program “Positivity Matters”.

Stream the talk here.

 

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Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and a Principal Investigator for the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.  She has authored two books, John Stuart Mill’s Deliberative Landscape: An essay in moral psychology (Routledge, 2001) and Reasonably Vicious (Harvard University Press, 2002), and essays in ethics, social and political philosophy, philosophy and literature, cinema, psychoanalysis, gender studies, sexuality studies, and other areas.  Her research interests are in practical philosophy (particularly the strand of work in moral philosophy indebted to Elizabeth Anscombe), practical reason, Kant’s ethics, Marx, and neo-Aristotelian naturalism.

March 19: Save the date to hear Candace Vogler on “Positivity Matters”

s26872qpmdownload

“Translating wellbeing research into positive community experiences.”

Nick Hernandez will interview Candace Vogler at 11:30 am on March 19 on KZUM Community Matters for the program “Positivity Matters”. Stream the talk here.

Podcasts of past episodes: 

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Candace Vogler is the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor of Philosophy and Professor in the College at the University of Chicago, and a Principal Investigator for the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.  She has authored two books, John Stuart Mill’s Deliberative Landscape: An essay in moral psychology (Routledge, 2001) and Reasonably Vicious (Harvard University Press, 2002), and essays in ethics, social and political philosophy, philosophy and literature, cinema, psychoanalysis, gender studies, sexuality studies, and other areas.  Her research interests are in practical philosophy (particularly the strand of work in moral philosophy indebted to Elizabeth Anscombe), practical reason, Kant’s ethics, Marx, and neo-Aristotelian naturalism.

4 Philosophy Professors Weigh In on The Good Place

This article was originally published in POPSUGAR on February 28, 2018. LINK

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Kristen Bell as Eleanor, William Jackson Harper as Chidi, and Ted Danson as Michael.

There’s a scene in the second season of The Good Place where, in order to illustrate the classic moral dilemma known as The Trolley Problem, the characters are forced to live it. The famous thought experiment, which asks different variations of whether you would steer an unstoppable trolley into one person to avoid killing five, has long been a go-to for ethics scholars — but watching the show’s hilariously gory take on it brought the lesson to life in a way Agnes Callard, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, hadn’t considered before. “There’s something very violent about the thought experiment itself, like, we’re asking them to imagine murdering people,” Callard told POPSUGAR. “And the show just takes that really seriously, like, ‘OK, let’s really imagine it.'”

 

It’s just one of the ways tuning into the NBC sitcom has been a fun first for philosophy and ethics professors like Callard, who aren’t used to seeing their area of expertise at the center of a hit network comedy. Callard and the three other philosophy professors/The Good Place fans we talked to said that while pop culture has always reflected on philosophical themes, they don’t remember a show or movie ever examining specific theories and works this explicitly. The little Easter eggs creator Michael Schur has included in the series so far go beyond sneaky references to the Parks and Recuniverse. There are plenty of nods to the world of academic philosophy, too. Season one introduced the show’s philosophical foundation by way of actual mini lectures on how to be a good person from ethics professor Chidi (William Jackson Harper). But after the just-finished season two’s even deeper dive into questions of what it means to be good, the real-life philosophers said they can’t wait for season three.

 

Back in the fall of 2015, UCLA ethics professor Pamela Hieronymi says she got an email from Schur asking if she would be willing to discuss some ideas he had for a new project. “He wanted to pick my brain about ethics,” Hieronymi told POPSUGAR. “And I think that’s because he saw a paper on my website that sounded like the issues he was interested in about the motives for becoming a better person and whether it’s possible to become a better person.” The two spent about three hours chatting over coffee, Hieronymi said. About a year later, she spotted a billboard for The Good Place. After reaching back out to Schur to congratulate him, Hieronymi has occasionally served as a philosophical sounding board for the show’s writers, even visiting the studio at one point to teach them about The Trolley Problem and other lessons.

 

“The philosophy is working at two levels,” Hieronymi said of the show, which she’s watched from the beginning. “So, there’s the obvious level where Chidi is giving little lessons and namedropping both classic philosophers like Plato and Aristotle and Kierkegaard and contemporary philosophers, which is really kind of wild . . . but then there’s the actual more serious exploration of those issues that are taking place in the story line and with the characters.” Though the show is set in the afterlife — a topic that’s been examined by philosophers for centuries — all four professors said they don’t really see it as being about heaven or hell. Instead it’s about the kinds of questions philosophy aims to answer: What makes someone good or bad? What matters? How should we treat other people?

 

That last question comes up a lot, specifically in references to philosopher T.M. Scanlon’s book What We Owe to Each Other” (it’s even part of the clue to help Eleanor and Chidi reconnect after the season one twist). The idea that the show uses modern-day philosophers like Scanlon, a professor emeritus at Harvard, has been especially exciting for fans in the academic community. Jason Bridges, an associate professor at the University of Chicago who specializes in the philosophy of action and the philosophy of the mind, studied under Scanlon, and said that specificity has been one of the highlights of watching the show. “Certainly I’ve never seen a show where books that are on my shelf, and not just classic works, recent works of philosophical ethics, keep popping up as props,” Bridges said to POPSUGAR.

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Seeing the life of an ethics professor on the small screen is another treat, according to the professors, but they had mixed feelings on whether they identified with the neurotic Chidi. Bridges said he likes the character but doesn’t see a big connection between Chidi’s neuroses and his interest in philosophy (though he did admit “moral philosophers may be more prone to stomachaches than the average person.”). Callard, too, said the portrayal of Chidi as being nerdy and boring doesn’t represent the philosophers she knows. (“I much more identify with Eleanor,” Callard said.) But fellow University of Chicago professor Candace Vogler said the idea of a philosopher “actually taking ordinary choices fairly seriously” is familiar. And Hieronymi said she has seen other philosophy professors post joking warnings on Facebook for colleagues to strive not to be like Chidi. “The indecisiveness is a real phenomena,” Hieronymi said. No one took offense at the show’s running joke that everyone hates moral philosophy professors. Chidi’s portrayal also just gives average viewers a playful peek into the world of a philosophy academic, Hieronymi said. “This show is more of what [The] Big Bang [Theory] was for science graduate students.”

 

For viewers who’ve never taken a philosophy class, the professors agreed that the show is giving the field some potentially valuable exposure, even if Eleanor does complain about her ethics lessons being boring. Vogler said she’s recommended The Good Place to introductory-level students. Hieronymi’s heard about other professors using the show itself as a teaching tool. Though Callard, Hieronymi, Bridges, and Vogler recognize that Chidi’s teachings are extreme simplifications of the complicated, nuanced theories they teach, and some of them had picked up on small issues (Vogler wasn’t a fan of Chidi’s reading of Kant, for example), the bigger-picture questions the characters address show that philosophical thinking can be practical — and compelling — for everyone. “Philosophy seems like a rarified thing to study,” Bridges said. “It seems like perhaps an impractical thing to major in, but what it does, if you study it, is cultivate ways of thinking and writing and communicating that are of general value and of use to a whole range of careers and human endeavors, and so this show helps illustrate that.”

 

Bridges says he thinks the topic of free will would be a no-brainer for season three, which we can maybe expect in the Fall. Hieronymi would be interested in seeing the show dig deeper into the timely issue of people getting defensive and having trouble taking constructive criticism about their actions. Whatever direction the show’s writers take, the professors said they’ve loved seeing the creative team take the public’s growing interest in self-reflection and run with it in such imaginative, accessible ways.

 

“Just the fact that the central problem for the characters is to try to figure out how to be better people and the thought that selfishness and narcissism are huge obstacles that people have to overcome in order to become better people,” Vogler said. “That’s profound.”

Hyde Park Institute Sponsoring Two Spring Courses at the University of Chicago

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Our partner the Hyde Park Institute is sponsoring two courses at the University of Chicago. Registration opens Monday, February 19.

Read more about the Hyde Park Institute here.

Anselm Mueller, Candace Vogler, and John Yoon are the faculty members of the Hyde Park Institute. Read more about them here.

 

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PHIL 21504/31504. The Nature of Practical Reason. Practical reason can be distinguished from theoretical or speculative reason in many ways. Traditionally, some philosophers have distinguished the two by urging that speculative or theoretical reason aims at truth, whereas practical aims at good. More recently, some have urged that the two are best known by their fruits. The theoretical exercise of reason yields beliefs, or knowledge, or understanding whereas the practical exercise of reason yields action, or an intention to do something, or a decision about which action to choose or which policy to adopt. In this course, we will focus on practical reason, looking at dominant accounts of practical reason, discussions of the distinction between practical and theoretical reasons, accounts of rationality in general and with respect to practical reason, and related topics. Prerequisite: At least one course in philosophy. Anselm Mueller; Candace  Vogler. DOWNLOAD PDF OF FULL DESCRIPTION HERE

 

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CCTS 21005 / MED XXXXX . The Challenges of the Good Physician: Virtue Ethics, Clinical Wisdom, and Character Resilience in Medicine. This multi-disciplinary course draws insights from medicine, sociology, moral psychology, philosophy, ethics and theology to explore answers to the unique challenges that medicine faces in the context of late modernity: How does one become a “good physician” in an era of growing moral pluralism and health care complexity? John Yoon, MD and Michael Hawking, MD.  DOWNLOAD PDF OF FULL DESCRIPTION HERE