The Virtue Blog

Blog for the Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life project

SUN, Nov 12: Candace Vogler at the Chicago Humanities Fallfest/17: Belief!

Being Well

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This article originally appeared in Tableau, the Division of the Humanities at the University of Chicago’s quarterly publication, as Being Well | Want a more fulfilling life? Put down your phone and look another human being in the eye by Courtney Guerra.

It’s easy to ignore the sign-offs at the end of email correspondence—they’re essentially content-neutral beyond conveying “message over.” But Candace Vogler, David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor in Philosophy, has a different style. She ends nearly all of her emails with “be well,” and, after talking with her, you get the sense that it’s intended as an actual imperative—albeit a kind and hopeful one.

 

It’s a small, subtle habit, but that’s the point. If you’re seeking to live more meaningfully, you might as well begin by imbuing meaning into the tiniest gestures of your everyday life.

 

As coleader of the Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life project, Vogler is an expert on living meaningfully. She and her collaborators study universal issues: “questions about the relations between being a good person and enjoying your life or having happiness, and having a sense of meaning or purpose,” she says. “We want to think about what it takes for those to line up.” And because the issues are universal, she’s eager to share the project’s work beyond the academy (through a blog, a podcast, a lecture series, and a culminating conference open to all).

 

The alignment of a satisfying and virtuous life, in her view, begins with self-transcendence: “You’ve got to see your life as enabling you to participate in a good that’s larger than you.” She’s not necessarily talking about volunteerism or devotion to a low-paying, labor-of-love type career. “I mean even in most business settings,” she says, “you’re usually working on a team of one sort or another—and in most sectors of the economy that I know anything about, if things aren’t going well on the team, work isn’t going well.” In essence: we’re all in this together, and we’ll all be better off if we keep that more readily in mind.

 

This point seems especially crucial as so many personal interactions are mediated through technology. “I’m really glad I’m too old to have grown up in a world where there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of images of me available this way and any time,” Vogler reflects. “Because it really does put us in a kind of Rousseau world, where we need everything out there to mirror back to us all the time.” She posits that in our post-smartphone reality, a “particular sense of anxiety, tenuousness, and weirdly overpublicized isolation” results from “not having learned many skills about how to connect with other human beings. And it is something you have to learn to do.”

 

While insecurity and awkwardness aren’t newly emergent phenomena, she thinks they’ve gotten worse. “The depth of the hunger to be connected to other people—that doesn’t change. The thought that you might be able to do that at 4 o’clock in the morning on the phone, that’s different. That’s a new thing.”

 

Vogler doesn’t dispute the utility of screen-based communications in certain contexts, but warns against letting them replace face-to-face interactions. Something as simple as saying hello to other people can “reassure your whole body that you’re in a world with fellow human beings”—fulfilling a fundamental animal need and offering a brief respite from whatever obligations you’re running to and from. If you’re chronically overscheduled, Vogler urges, that means “you’re too busy not to stop and say ‘good morning.’ If you’re that busy, it’s critically important that you do these things that don’t actually cost very much time at all.”

 

What’s her prescription for achieving a more meaningful life? “Greet people. You start with things like that. Notice that you’re in a human environment, that there are other people around, that you’re a member of a community that’s doing various things. Slowly, gently, in a friendly way, acknowledge them. That kind of little thing could be enough to make a huge difference.”

Scholarship of Self-Transcendence

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Allegorical Tapestry with Sages of the Past, The Cloisters Collection, 2014, CCO, 1.0.

This article originally appeared in Tableau, the Division of the Humanities at the University of Chicago’s quarterly publication, as Scholarship of Self-Transcendence: Candace Vogler leads a search for the meaning of life by Courtney C. W. Guerra.

 

Candace Vogler, the David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor in Philosophy, is invested in her fellow human beings, and she’s determined to help them—us—find fulfillment. To tackle such a complex issue, she proposed the collaborative research project Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life, the aims of which are every bit as ambitious as its name implies. With major support from the John Templeton Foundation, this multiyear initiative—jointly led by Jennifer A. Frey, a philosopher at the University of South Carolina—explores self-transcendence: a feeling of connection to something beyond the individual self.

 

Of course, there’s no single way for human beings to attain self-transcendence: it can happen through spiritual practice, professional drive, familial bonds, or any number of commitments to a higher cause. Vogler’s group includes psychologists, philosophers, and religious thinkers from a variety of traditions. Many are UChicago colleagues: assistant professor Marc G. Berman and professor Howard C. Nusbaum in Psychology, associate professor Tahera Qutbuddin in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and, in Philosophy, assistant professor Matthias Haase and Josef Stern, the William H. Colvin Professor Emeritus. The 30-scholar cohort represents institutions throughout the United States, Middle East, and Europe; they have been meeting and teaching since October 2015.

 

When she devised the project, Vogler says, “The ambition was to get a kind of deep integration between people working in very different disciplines” without relegating their work to the margins of less widely read, explicitly interdisciplinary publications. And it worked: the participants are “doing disciplinary work, they’re publishing in the disciplinary journals, and the inspiration for it is coming out of the frame of the project.”

 

These discussions have informed 10 published or forthcoming articles—a figure that “pretty dramatically exceeded” her initial expectations—with many more on the way. One essay that encapsulates the spirit of the project is being developed by Notre Dame theologian Jean Porter, about studies by Cornell University psychologist Katherine Kinzler on early childhood food preferences. Porter finds parallels between contemporary psychology and the views of Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas on the influence of group identity on what children choose to eat. (A draft is available on the Virtue Blog, along with other writings and filmed lectures.) This video helps to introduce and contextualize the group’s scholarship.

 

Like Porter’s essay, much of the project is “built on things that ought to be super interesting to people who are not academics,” says Vogler. She hopes a broad audience will attend the culminating conference at UChicago over the weekend of October 14–15. From there, Vogler plans to share her team’s findings with educators—from early childhood through MBA programs and beyond—to help promote self-transcendence at every stage of development. “There’s a big difference,” she points out, “between leading a life that’s super busy and leading a life that’s full.” Her hope is that the group’s work, as it reverberates out into the broader world, will help people achieve the latter.

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”.

“Finding camaraderie and illumination from others in the more treacherous passages of human life” – Interview with Talbot Brewer

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Ida Noyes Hall Auditorium at the University of Chicago – photo by Chris Smith
Margaret “Peggy” Ryan Binette is Associate Director of Public Relations for the Office of Communications & Public Affairs at the University of South Carolina; she conducted this interview with Talbot Brewer in advance of his lecture “What Good Are The Humanities?” on December 14, 5:30pm at the University of South Carolina.

Peggy Binette: How can the humanities contribute to happiness and meaningfulness in life – regardless of socioeconomic position?

Talbot Brewer: There is at best a tenuous connection between the humanities and happiness. Serious engagement with literature and art does of course have its pleasures, and we professors would be falling down on the job if our students did not come to know these pleasures. But If you went to a production of, say, Shakespeare’s Othello in hopes of making yourself happier, you’d be making a serious mistake. Seeing Othello can be, and indeed ought to be, a crushing experience. But while you probably would not walk out of the theater brimming with happiness, you might walk out with a deeper understanding of intimate love and the potentially deadly pathologies to which it exposes us. Whether such understanding makes life more meaningful is a complicated question. I think that it does. I would not wish to deny that someone who has never learned to read or write, and never learned to appreciate art, can have an extremely meaningful life, nor would I wish to rule out the possibility that someone with an advanced degree in philosophy or literature might lead a superficial existence. Still, I do think that when pursued in the right spirit, the humanities can deepen one’s experience of life, and that is an enormous gift.

PB: In this chaotic and ever-demanding world, how important is it for people to reflect on the concepts, virtues and values espoused in the humanities?

talbTB: We have devised a world in which mercenary words and images press upon us during almost every waking hour. When amid this clamor of manipulative messages we suddenly encounter something quite different, something called literature, or art, or philosophy, it is not easy to adjust our habits of attention and open ourselves fully to this newcomer. The cultural environment has not encouraged the traits required for proper engagement with the humanities: the habit of sustained attention and of patience and generosity in interpretation; the openness to finding camaraderie and illumination from others in the more treacherous passages of human life; the expressive conscience that cannot rest until it lights upon exactly the right words for one’s own incipient thoughts. By creating a space within which 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.
PB: What is the one point or thought you want anyone who attends your talk to take away?

TB: Some have tried to ground the value of the humanities in their contribution to economic productivity. Others have tried to ground the value of the humanities in their contribution to the health of our democratic institutions. Neither approach seems to me very convincing. What drives so many friends of the humanities to these two options, I believe, is the thought that if the humanities do not boost the economy or strengthen the polity, then their value must be an entirely individual matter, hence not a genuine public concern. This way of framing the issue trades on a mistakenly atomistic conception of human culture. The attainment of a sophisticated level of articulacy about human life both depends upon, and contributes to, a background cultural sophistication about human life. When it comes to the contest between depth and superficiality, we are in it together. At a time when our metastasizing material productivity poses a serious threat to the future of human life on this planet, perhaps we would be well advised to put less emphasis on economic growth and more emphasis on this entirely sustainable shared pursuit, to which the humanities can make an important contribution.

“What Good Are The Humanities?” on December 14, 5:30pm at the University of South Carolina.

University of South Carolina to host lecture on the relationship of the humanities and happiness Dec. 14

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Talbot Brewer at the December 2015 working group meeting of the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

 

How do the humanities matter in a chaotic 21st century? That’s the question one of the nation’s top philosophers and ethics experts will tackle in a public talk Dec. 14 at the University of South Carolina.

 

Talbot Brewer, a professor from the University of Virginia, will speak at 5:30 p.m. in the School of Law auditorium. His talk, titled “What Good are the Humanities?” is part of a research project that is led in part by the University of South Carolina and 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. Advance registration is 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.

 

That gift is the basis for the research project, “Virtue, Happiness and the Meaning of Life,” which is co-directed by Carolina philosopher Jennifer Frey and University of Chicago philosopher Candace Vogler . It is funded by a $2.1 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

 

For more information about the research, visit the project website. For more information about Brewer’s talk, contact Frey at frey.jenn@gmail.com.


Margaret “Peggy” Ryan Binette is Associate Director of Public Relations for the Office of Communications & Public Affairs at the University of South Carolina.

 

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

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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.

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For more information, contact: Valerie Wallace, Associate Director, Communications
Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life
vwallace@uchicago.edu