Podcast: “Sophocles and Tragic Love” | Sacred and Profane Love, Episode 8

Theatre of Dionysus.
Photo: Flickr, NMares

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Sophocles and Tragic Love

In episode 8 of Sacred & Profane Love, Jennifer Frey speaks with Dhananjay Jagannathan about Greek tragedy and the fragility of human loves and happiness, with a special focus on Sophocles’ play, The Women of Trachis.

Dhananjay Jagannathan is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University.   He mainly works in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and the history of ethics, but he is also interested in contemporary virtue ethics, political philosophy, and topics at the intersection of philosophy and literature. He is writing a book on Aristotle’s practical epistemology, which was also the topic of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Chicago.

Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina. Prior to joining the philosophy faculty at USC, she was a Collegiate Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Chicago, where she was a member of the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts and an affiliated faculty in the philosophy department.  She earned her PhD in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh, and her B.A. in Philosophy and Medieval Studies (with Classics minor) at Indiana University-Bloomington. Her research lies at the intersection of philosophy of action and ethics, with a particular focus on the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition.

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Sacred and Profane Love is a podcast in which philosophers, theologians, and literary critics discuss some of their favorite works of literature, and how these works have shaped their own ideas about love, happiness, and meaning in human life. Host Jennifer A. Frey is A Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and co-Principal Investigator at Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

This podcast is a project of Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life, and is made possible through a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

Content copyright the University of South Carolina and the University of Chicago.

Music credits, “Help me Somebody,” by Brian Eno and David Byrne, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.5.

Empathy and Self-Transcendence

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“Empathy” | Photo by Sarah Barker.

Note: This is part 1 of a 3-part series “Perspective-Taking, Empathy, and Self-Transcendence” based on a talk at the University of California, San Diego by Candace Vogler in June 2018 for WISDOM, COMPASSION, AND LONGEVITY.

 

Introduction

Some colleagues and I are in the process of bringing a grant project to a close.  The project has given all of us a chance to think together about the relationship between working to be a good person, leading a meaningful life, and being happy.  These three need not coincide.  I could be working hard to deliver medical supplies, food, and drinking water to refugees in desperate circumstances.  I am helping set up a clinic in their camp, say.  New people keep arriving, fleeing the genocidal violence across the border.

 

Chances are that I have a strong sense of purpose.  There is meaning in the life I’m leading.  Chances are that I am a reasonably good person.  On some understandings of the term ‘happiness’—the sort associated with having a happy birthday, say, or a happy holiday—I am probably not particularly happy. But there is a kind of happiness I might have even in the camp.  I might get a profound sense of satisfaction from my work.  I might be exultant if we are able to save the lives of people who are half-dead when they arrive.  And I might be cheerful.  If profound satisfaction and the ability to maintain some balance and some capacity for joy amid immense struggle is what we mean by ‘happiness,’ then I am happy.

 

Our grant project was not explicitly directed to the situation of humanitarian aid workers and those who need the help they bring. We were mostly thinking about ordinary people who understand themselves as belonging to a middle class in places like North America.  We wanted to understand what might be involved in finding meaning and real satisfaction in leading ordinary lives in the kinds of extraordinarily fortunate circumstances middle class people around these parts enjoy.  We argued—in various ways, across various academic disciplines—that the key to bringing together efforts to be a good person, deep satisfaction, and a strong sense of meaning in one’s ordinary life was to be oriented to some good larger than one’s own success and the welfare of members of one’s circle.  Being entirely oriented to my own success, my own pleasures, my own comfort, my own prospects, is not a recipe for leading a good life.  It does not become a recipe for leading a good life even if I extend the sphere of my primary concern to cover the pleasures, comfort, security and prospects of my friends and family.  Finding meaning in my life, finding my life profoundly satisfying, putting my efforts to be a good person in their proper place—these things require being alive to participating in a good that goes beyond me and mine.

 

There are many ways that this can happen.  I can understand my life in the context of a multigenerational family that began long before I was born and will, with any luck, continue long after I die.  I inherited the benefits of the struggles of my ancestors.  I want to carry the good forward for my descendants—people I will never meet, whose names I will not know, but whose lives grow out of the life I lead.  Or perhaps it is like this—I work toward environmental sustainability, or I am devoted to social justice, or my religious faith animates my sense of my world and our place in it.  Lots of roads are made of good larger than the worldly gains of me and mine.  Following any of those roads can amount to living a life where ordinary things are meaningful, where life is deeply satisfying even when it is not much fun, and where the ordinary ethical struggles I face are worth the courage and effort it takes to begin to remedy my own failings.

 

One way of putting the central insight that animated our grant project, then, is this—to lead a life that is good in three senses—successful, satisfying, and ethically sound—we must break the spell of selfishness.  Breaking the spell of selfishness is not easy.  I will focus on one of the ways that we can loosen the hold of what Immanuel Kant called ‘the dear self’ today.  I will talk about the variety of compassion at issue in empathy.

 

Tomorrow, June 6: Empathy and Shifting Perspectives


Candace Vogler is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago and a Principal Investigator on ‘Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life’, a project funded by the John Templeton Foundation. She is also the Chair in Virtue Theory, a joint appointment with the Jubilee Centre and the Royal Institute of Philosophy. 

Happiness – reflection on the 2017 summer seminar

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“Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence”2017 Summer Seminar Participants (from left) Elise Murray, Molly Ogunyemi, Timothy Reilly, at the University of Chicago’s Neaubauer Collegium.

When I sent in my application to be a part of the Virtue, Happiness, & the Self-Transcendence seminar, I was certain that I would benefit from participating but I was not quite sure how much. Now, after the experience, I am really glad that I was part of it. I found it intellectually stimulating and very helpful. I learnt a lot from everyone. The keynote speakers and other participants were ready to discuss my research topics and the discussions that I had with them gave insights for developing my work both as a lecturer and as an early career researcher. For example, Professor Candace Vogler gave me wonderful suggestions for improving my teaching, and I have been able to apply some of them in my classes in Lagos.  In addition, the discussions in the sessions helped me to gain a deeper understanding of the topics of virtue and happiness. I learnt a lot from the interactions between the scholars. Those discussions I had with everyone made me want to study more and understand these topics better.

 

After the seminar, I came up with questions I emailed to the scholars I met in the seminar. I have been pondering over the themes of the discussions since the summer ended, and some more questions come up in my mind when I reflect on my experience from the seminar. The seminar reinforced my interest in interdisciplinary research work and the discussions and the subsequent emails from the participants, (e.g. Dan P McAdams, Timothy Reilly) gave me ideas for future directions in my research.

 

One of such questions was about the evolution and development of the self and how to interpret and integrate information, research results and ideas from psychology and the humanities while trying to understand human life. The discussion that I had with Tim and Maureen during the seminar and the emails afterwards, were really helpful. They suggested looking at the topic from the perspective of developmental psychology, while seeking themes that may be congruent with philosophical frameworks of the good life. I would like to explore these topics in future research.

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Philosopher Stephen Brock chats with Molly Ogunyemi at the 2017 Summer Seminar “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence”.

What was the best part of the experience?

I think that the best part of the experience for me was being able to reflect about a topic that the participants and keynote speakers had explored from different perspectives. The scholars from the different fields gave a deeper understanding of the same topics in different lights, and I found it very interesting to see some of the different perspectives and views across fields and to see their commonalities identifiable from the discussions. Oftentimes, scholars from different fields use the same words to describe concepts that are similar and one can think that different fields are referring to the same concepts and content. However, the use of the same terminology may carry different connotations or meanings. Even while studying a concept within the same field, the depth of the meaning attributed to a specific concept may differ significantly. For example, I discovered that narrative psychologist’s concept of virtue is understood quite differently from what I thought I understood from my personal study of psychology. I discovered that the relationship between virtue and the ultimate good for human beings which is clear within classical Aristotelian philosophy ought not to be imposed on psychology’s notion of virtues. Even though both fields use the same words for similar concepts of habits which foster human flourishing and wellbeing, the Aristotelian concept of virtue is tightly linked to the ultimate good of the person found with the best use of his highest faculties, while this link is not so clear with psychology. Therefore one would need to be more attentive to such details when comparing results of studies from these two fields. Being able to speak and exchange ideas with scholars whose works that I had studied helped me to clarify my doubts about what I had understood from personal study.

 

What did you learn that you didn’t know before?

One of the many things I gained is a deeper understanding of Immanuel Kant’s anthropology and a moral philosophy. The concept of the highest good in Kant’s moral philosophy is a topic which was relatively new to me and I gained a lot from discussions on that topic. The discussions on Aristotelian concept of philia, identification and identity also gave me deeper understanding of friendship.

 

Additionally, I spoke with Dan P Mc Adams, whose work I had studied for my PhD thesis and to understand his thought better. After the seminar, he sent me an email explaining some points in the evolution of his thought to me which I had not known before. For example, he noted that the original idea in his early work on narrative psychology presents the role of narratives in the heroic quest to make grand meaning. Now, one discovers that narratives are one among many other tools for that quest.

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Psychologist Dan P McAdams leading a session during the 2017 Summer Seminar “Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence”.

How did the interdisciplinary nature of the seminar open new possibilities for your research?

My PhD thesis had an interdisciplinary approach and meeting people who work with an approach similar to mine helped to discover points of dialogue.

 

I am currently thinking of a research project on virtues and values in education in Nigeria and I hope to engage some of the scholars whom I met at the seminar. I am still in the idea stage. Additionally, I think that some of the projects which the participants were working on can be replicated in my country. I expect that applications of the discoveries from such projects will foster human flourishing, virtue and happiness in my context. It is true that the methods, the specifics of such investigations and the findings in my country may differ from those in other contexts. However, I think there will be significant proportions of commonalities in the general framework for such investigations and findings and it would be interesting to discover points of confluence that cut across cultures. For example, even though the specific manifestations and applied nomenclature of some of the cardinal virtues may be different in different cultures, one may be able to find that there is some essential concept which stems from each virtue that is common to all.

 

On the whole, I am quite happy that I participated in the seminar as I am sure it has contributed to my development. I believe that it is the beginning of intellectual dialogue and mutually enriching interactions.

 

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Omowumi Ogunyemi obtained her first degree in medicine and surgery. She has worked as a medical practitioner in various hospitals in Nigeria including The Federal Neuro-Psychiatric Hospital, Lagos, where she co-managed patients with substance-induced disorders. She holds a licentiate degree and a doctorate in philosophy (Anthropology and Ethics) from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome. Currently, she lectures in the Institute of Humanities of the Pan-Atlantic University, Lagos, Nigeria. “Molly” Ogunyemi was a participant with the 2017 Summer Seminar, Virtue, Happiness, & Self-Transcendence

Truth and Goodness and Rationality: Interview with Anselm Mueller

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We’re pleased to share this interview with Anselm Winfriend Mueller, our 2017-18 visiting scholar, who is a visiting professor this quarter at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago. He spoke with Johann Gudmundsson, a doctoral student at the Universität Leipzig currently on a research stay at the University of Chicago, where he’s working on his dissertation on moral judgment and practical goodness.      

Johann Gudmundsson: For many years, you’ve been pursuing the thought that to act well is to act from practical reason. How are truth and goodness related to rationality? Do you think that there is a deep affinity between goodness and truth?

Anselm Winfried Mueller:  Can we reasonably ask whether what you ultimately aim at in acting, rather than just whatever happens to attract you, is really good? – I think we can. At least, we take it for granted that in principle the question has an answer. For, in a year’s time, you may think you were wrong to aim at what you aimed at (much as you may come to think false what you believed to be true a year before). Such a thought makes sense only if there is a standard of goodness by which to evaluate purposes objectively (much as beliefs are evaluated objectively by the standard of truth). So ascriptions of goodness will themselves be true or false.

What is the place of rationality in this context? – To manifest knowledge, a statement has, as a rule, to be based on adequate reasons. Theoretical rationality is to this extent the way we reach truth. But a statement can be true without manifesting knowledge. By contrast, the goodness that we achieve in acting well depends unrestrictedly on what reasons we respond, and don’t respond, to. To act justly, for instance, is: to be motivated by others’ rights; to act courageously is: not to be turned away from important pursuits by the threat of danger etc.

JG: In the mid-20th century, questions relating to ethical language were in vogue, and reflection on moral discourse and meaning was held to be crucial. For example, a central question was whether ethical statements, qua speech act, should be understood as full-blown assertions or not. Those questions have faded from spotlight in recent years. How do you estimate the significance of language for ethical thought?

AWM: Quite generally, the way we talk about things supplies significant hints at their correct understanding. This is so with talk about actions and their moral qualities as much as it is with talk about causes, numbers, social institutions, or whatever.

Now, in order to improve our grasp of the relevant concepts, attention has to be directed at the interaction between the ways we talk and the ways we act. What philosophy needs to get clear about is the different roles that different uses of words play in the wider context of human social life. So philosophers have rightly become critical of arguments based simply on “what we (don’t) say”.

But, as far as I can see, present day analytical philosophy suffers more from the opposite error: its practitioners are often insensitive or indifferent to the problematic character of formulations required or admitted by their theories, when by taking notice of it they might have discovered, e.g., that the phenomena they were hoping to cover by a unifying account were in fact more disparate than this account allowed.

JG: It seems that there are two kinds of good that pertain to human beings. On the one hand, there’s individual well-being or happiness. On the other hand, there’s moral perfection. Would you be happy to draw this distinction? If yes, how do you think individual happiness and moral perfection are related?

AWM: I can’t say that I would be happy to draw that distinction. Shouldn’t one feel honored to belong to a species noble enough to find their happiness guaranteed by adherence to reason realized in a life of virtue, as the Stoics taught?

Unfortunately, this doctrine is a sort of philosophical self-deception. It is indeed true, I think, that a person cannot be happy without attempting to lead a virtuous life. And also, that human happiness cannot but consist in the satisfying use of reason. But we just have to acknowledge that serious suffering tends to prevent the virtuous person from being happy.

Moreover, although the practice of virtue is typically a source of happiness, there are other things as well, such as family life or the successful pursuit of a worthwhile project, that may well be constitutive of the (limited) happiness a man is able to attain. I agree that it won’t make you happy to pursue such a project by evil means. But this does not mean that ethical virtue is the feature of your pursuit that secures your happiness.

So honesty requires us to answer your first question by acknowledging the distinction between happiness and moral perfection. The second question may be one of those that it is the task of philosophy to raise and keep alive although it cannot answer them. As Kant observed, we just cannot discard the idea that there “must” be a way in which the pursuit of virtue issues in happiness. This, too, honesty requires us to recognize. I suspect it is even part of virtue itself to think, with Socrates: It cannot, ultimately, be to my disadvantage to pursue it.

JG: You probably would agree that the aim of philosophical activity is to get clear on certain fundamental notions. The aim of practical philosophy then would be to clarify notions such as intention, reason, goodness and rationality. Do you think that practical philosophy can also be of practical guidance by providing answers to substantial moral questions? Or can such answers only be reached beyond philosophy, for example in public discourse, individual conscience or religious traditions?

AWM: It would be pleasant for practical philosophers to think of themselves as benefiting humanity by giving the kind of guidance you mention. But I think their ambitions have to be more modest.

I am not a skeptic about the possibility of showing that human life is in need of moral norms. But, first, such demonstrations remain theoretical: they explain moral requirements, and they give you reason to believe that doing this and avoiding that serves human flourishing; but they do not thereby already give you reason to do this and avoid that. And, second, nobody – philosopher or not – will adopt a moral norm such as: not to cheat, or: to take responsibility for one’s children, or: to refrain from cruelty, because of a philosophical demonstration; for one’s conviction of the need to comply with such norms will almost certainly be more certain than one’s confidence in any philosophical argument for them.

Nevertheless, philosophers need not despair of their public utility. On the one hand, people who already listen to the voice of virtue are in a position, and will be ready, also to learn, for their practice, from theoretical reflexion on what you call substantial moral questions – on how to carry on in view of considerations that may have escaped them. On the other hand, and possibly even more importantly, good philosophy is needed to refute the brand of bad philosophy that claims to show that morality is an illusion, or that what it enjoins is “authenticity” in the pursuit of your likings, or the like – the kind of claim that is sensational or shocking enough to make it into the media and is hailed by those already tempted to deceive themselves, or compromise, where moral requirements challenge their questionable inclinations.

I am not myself enough of a columnist to take on the task of facing popular versions of misguided philosophical claims. The job that your question well describes as clarifying “notions such as intention, reason, goodness and rationality” is (I hope!) more congenial to my temperament and talent. So I cheerfully resign myself to peaceful exchange with those enviable colleagues who engage in both “philosophizing for philosophers” and “philosophizing for the world”.

 


Johann Gudmundsson got his Magister Artium degree in Philosophy and German studies from the Universität Leipzig after having studied there and at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. He then worked as a research assistant at the Universität Leipzig and as a coordinator of a project funded by the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina on institutional and quality problems of the German doctorate, and now a doctoral student at the Universität Leipzig currently on a research stay at the University of Chicago, where he’s working on his dissertation on moral judgment and practical goodness.      

Video: Candace Vogler and Rev. Lola Wright at the Chicago Humanities Festival

Candace Vogler spoke with Reverend Lola Wright about about her work as principal investigator of our project on self-transcendence as the key to the connections between virtue, happiness, and the meaning of life, for the Chicago Humanities Festival Fallfest17: Belief! on Sunday, November 12, 2017 at the Chicago Sinai Congregation.

Research suggests that individuals who feel they belong to something bigger than just themselves—an extended family, a spiritual practice, work for social justice—often feel happier and have better life outcomes than those who do not. This sense of connection has a name in academia: “self-transcendence.”

Learn more about RevLo and Candace and this event here.

CFP: Muslim-Christian Workshop on Philosophy, Religion, and Science at the American University of Sharjah, March 2018

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Our co-principal investigator Jennifer A. Frey will give the keynote addresses
“Virtue and Happiness” and “Virtues and Meaning in Life” at the Muslim-Christian Workshop on Philosophy, Religion, and Science at the American University of Sharjah (College of Arts & Sciences) 14-17 March 2018.

The main objective of this workshop, the second in a series in the Middle East, is to bring scholars and young academics from the Muslim world and from the USA, trained in philosophy, religion and/or science, to benefit from in-depth lectures and discussions on issues at the interfaces of philosophy, religion, and science from both Islamic and Christian perspectives.

Scholars will give 1-hour lectures or 2-hour workshops to cover major topics, while 15-20 young academics (graduate students, early career professors) will present their selected research papers in 30 minutes each. The goal is for everyone, particularly the young academics, to benefit from multi-disciplinary and inter-religious perspectives and to identify new avenues of research.

The workshop will run over 4 days, March 14 to 17, 2018 not including arrival and departure days.

The submission deadline for papers is: January 21, 2018, possibly extendable to Jan. 31, 2018.

For more information, including paper submission details, visit https://islam-science.net/muslim-christian-workshop-on-philosophy-religion-and-science-at-the-aus-march-2018-3972/.