May 10: Jennifer A. Frey “Elizabeth Anscombe on Living the Truth” at Lumen Christi, UChicago

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We’re thrilled to share this upcoming program featuring our co-Principal Investigator JenniferA. Frey, speaking at a program sponsored by one of partners, the Lumen Christi Institute.

May 10 | University of Chicago

Free and open to the public. For more information and to register, visit: REGISTER HERE

Elizabeth Anscombe was one of the most important and influential analytic philosophers of the twentieth century. One of the last lectures she delivered was titled, “Doing the Truth.” In it, she sets out to identify and clarify a specifically practical mode of truth as the proper goal of a specifically practical mode of reasoning and knowledge.  This talk will explore how Anscombe understands practical truth by relating it to her influential theory of the intentionality of action; its ultimate suggestion is that “doing the truth” just is living a good human life–i.e., knowingly performing actions in accordance with true judgments of right practical reasoning.  The person who achieves this truth is virtuous, someone who can stand as an exemplar (or rule and measure) for those who seek the truth but have not yet realized it in their lives.

 

Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina. She was previously 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. Prof. Frey holds a PhD from the University of Pittsburgh, and a B.A. from Indiana University-Bloomington. She is the co-Principal Investigator on “Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning of Life.” Her further research interests include the history of ethics, especially medieval and early modern.

Frey Lecture Poster

Podcast: “Fantasy, Romance, and Self-destruction in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary” | Sacred & Profane Love

In Episode 4 of the podcast Sacred & Profane Love, Professor Jennifer A. Frey speaks with philosopher, poet, and literary critic, Troy Jollimore, about how romantic ideologies and illusions can destroy our ability to experience real and meaningful love–the sort of love that is a central part of a happy and meaningful life. We ground our conversation in a wide ranging discussion of Gustave Flaubert’s incredibly influential nineteenth century novel, Madame Bovary. 
Troy Jollimore holds a PhD in Philosophy from Princeton and currently teaches at California State University, Chico. He is the author of three books of philosophy, including Love’s Vision and On Loyalty.  He is also the author of three collections of poetry: At Lake Scugog, Tom Thomson in Purgatory, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry, and Syllabus of Errors.  He has received fellowships from the Stanford Humanities Center, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and the Guggenheim Foundation.
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.

NEXT Episode: Talbot Brewer

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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.

 

Podcast: “Walt Whitman on hope and national character” | Sacred & Profane Love

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In Episode 3 of the podcast Sacred & Profane Love, philosopher Jennifer A. Frey has a conversation with fellow philosopher Nancy Snow, about why she thinks we should be reading the poetry of Walt Whitman in our current political moment.  We discuss Whitman’s, “Song of Myself” and “Democratic Vistas,” and how each of these works touches on the theme of hope as a democratic civic virtue.  We also explore Whitman’s conviction that poetry can help build hope and help to shape the national character more generally.
Works under discussion in Episode 3:
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
Walt Whitman, “Democratic Vistas
Nancy Snow is Director of the Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing at University of Oklahoma and was a scholar with the project Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life. Read more here.
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.

NEXT Episode: Troy Jollimore discusses Madame Bovary

 Subscribe

Preview on iTunes

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.

 

Podcast: “Transfiguring Love in the Brothers Karamazov” | Sacred & Profane Love

 

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In Episode 2 of the podcast Sacred & Profane Love, philosopher Jennifer A. Frey has a conversation with fellow philosopher, David McPherson (Creighton University), about transfiguring love as explored by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his influential novel, The Brother’s Karamazov.  The episode covers Dostoyevksy’s treatment of the classic problem of evil—i.e., the problem of reconciling God’s love and wisdom with the evil and suffering that are part of his creation—and in particular, his idea that active and self-transcending love for others is the only proper response to human suffering, because the only true path to achieving the kind of deep happiness that is the goal of every human heart.
Works under discussion in Episode 2:
David McPherson is assistant professor of philosophy at Creighton University.  His research and teaching center around ethics (especially virtue ethics) and the philosophy of religion.  He has authored many essays on ethics, moral psychology, and spirituality.  He is most recently the editor of the collection of essays, Spirituality and the Good Life (Cambridge University Press, 2018).  David is current working on a monograph on human beings as meaning seeking animals.      

 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.

NEXT Episode 3: Nancy Snow, “Walt Whitman on hope and national character”

 Subscribe

Preview on iTunes

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.

 

Podcast: “Redemptive love and comic mercy in the short stories of Flannery O’Connor” | Sacred & Profane Love

In Episode 1 of the podcast Sacred & Profane Love, philosopher Jennifer A. Frey has a conversation with the Thomist theologian, Father Thomas Joseph White, O.P., about Aquinas on grace and charity, and how Thomistic concepts of grace and charity operate in the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. The episode covers themes of grace, redemption, the comic unveiling of the human person to itself, and the violence of Divine Love as a necessary antidote to human folly and brokenness.

 

Works under discussion in Episode 1:
Flannery O’Connor: “A Good Man is Hard to Find,””Greenleaf,” “Revelation,” “The Enduring Chill”
Thomas Aquinas:  ST I-II q. 26-28 and ST III, q. 60, q. 64-65

Thomas Joseph White, O.P. completed his doctoral studies in theology at Oxford University, and entered the Order of Preachers in 2003. His research and teaching have focused particularly on topics related to Thomistic metaphysics and Christology as well as Roman Catholic-Reformed ecumenical dialogue. He is the author of Wisdom in the Face of Modernity: A Study in Thomistic Natural Theology (Sapientia Press, 2009), The Incarnate Lord: A Thomistic Study in Christology (The Catholic University of America Press, 2015), and Exodus (Brazos Press, 2016). He has edited several books, and is co-editor of the theological journal Nova et Vetera (English edition). In 2011 he was appointed an ordinary member of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas.

 

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.

NEXT: Episode 2: “Transfiguring love in The Brothers Karamazov” with David McPherson

 

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.

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/.

Cultural relativism

Samurai standing on stairway in night forest with the red moon on background,illustration painting

Note: This is a 3-part series of the essay Quid Est Veritas: On Truth and Moral Relativism.

Part III: Cultural Relativism

 

Many people come to affirm moral relativism because there is so much moral disagreement, both within a culture and across cultures. These people think that the fact that there is no agreement is a sign that there is nothing to agree about, no objective truth that cuts across cultures.

 

This disagreement isn’t recent either.  Certainly the Jews and the Romans profoundly disagreed about how to live, about what was OK to do and say and what wasn’t.  The ancient historian Herodotus, who was writing in mid fifth century BC, relates the following anecdote of the King of Persia:

 

He summoned the Greeks who happened to be present at his court, and asked them what they would take to eat the dead bodies of their fathers. They replied that they would not do it for any money in the world. Later, in the presence of the Greeks, and through an interpreter, so that they could understand what was said, he asked some Indians…who do in fact eat their parents’ dead bodies, what they would take to burn them. They uttered a cry of horror and forbade him to mention such a dreadful thing (Herodotus 440BCE; trans. Sélincourt, 1988, pp. 219- 20).

 

Insofar as we take Herodotus to be putting forth a view here, it would be what we now call cultural relativism.  This is a species of moral relativism insofar as it says that morality is relative to cultures, and it is shared cultural beliefs and practices that determine what is morally true for the people who are born into it.  So, what is morally true for an aboriginal tribe in what is now called Australia is true for them but not true for we Americans, and vice versa.

 

Cultural relativism is a species of moral relativism.  A cultural relativist believes that morality is relative to cultures, and that it is shared cultural beliefs and practices that determine what is morally acceptable and mandatory for the people who are brought up under them and for no one else.

 

A version of cultural relativism was put forward in 1947 by the American Anthropological Association, in response to the UN Declaration of the Universal Rights of Man.  The AAA was against such a universal declaration on explicitly relativist grounds.  They argued that moral belief and practice is entirely determined by culture and that there is no way to legitimately demonstrate that the values or customs of one culture are superior to any other.  They further chastised western political institutions for imposing their own culturally situated ideology of “universal rights” upon other nations.  In their statement on human rights, the anthropologists asked:

 

How can the proposed declaration be applicable to all human beings, and not be a statement of rights conceived only in terms of the values prevalent in the countries of Western Europe and America?[i]

 

Their worry was that the declaration of universal human rights was just colonialism masquerading as liberation.  Unmask this, and all we are left with is the ideology of the “white man’s burden” all over again.   So, instead of declaring a regime of universal rights that all cultures had to respect, the anthropologists argued for “respect for differences between cultures” which is “validated by the scientific fact that no technique of qualitatively evaluating cultures has been discovered.” (1947, 542)  The anthropologists also claimed explicitly that:

 

Standards and values are relative to the culture from which they derive so that any attempt to formulate postulates that grow out of the beliefs or moral codes of one culture must to that extent detract from the applicability of any declaration of human rights to mankind as a whole. (Ibid)

 

The first thing to say about this fascinating document is that its appeal to science does no argumentative work.  For just as there is no “scientific” method to “qualitatively evaluate” moral beliefs, there is also no “scientific” method to determine that qualitative measures are the only legitimate standards of knowledge.  To say that science hasn’t yielded an adequate moral theory is just to state the obvious and pretend that something substantive follows from it.  But we cannot infer from the fact that science doesn’t yield moral knowledge the conclusion that there can in principle be no moral knowledge, as moral knowledge may simply not be scientific in character.

 

Setting debates about what moral knowledge is aside, notice that here we have the familiar refrain to “respect diversity” rather than interfere and impose, because moral standards are relative to cultures, and that failure to recognize this belies a crude parochialism.  This position doesn’t have to assume, by the way, that other cultures have to respect diversity as well, so it needn’t be self-defeating in the ways we have previously discussed. [There is a complication here, however, about a so-called “right of men to live in terms of their own traditions” casually asserted in the document, but let’s be charitable and pretend it isn’t there]. The statement just says that within our western culture we should respect diversity and be tolerant of cultures dramatically different from our own.  This may mean, by the way, that women continue to be treated as inferiors to men and denied political rights, education, and any semblance of control over what happens to their bodies, that homosexuals may be executed, that honor killings may continue, or any other number of things that look like moral atrocities from our contemporary western point of view.  The consistent cultural relativist will, on these matters, have to live and let live.

 

We can further complicate this issue.  In her wonderful essay, “Trying Out One’s New Sword,” Mary Midgley describes the following custom of Samurai warriors in Medieval Japan:

 

There is, it seems, a verb in classical Japanese which means ‘to try out one’s new sword on a chance wayfarer.’  (The word is tsujigiri, literally ‘crossroads-cut’).  A Samurai sword had to be tried out because, if it was to work properly, it had to slice through someone at a single blow, from the shoulder to the opposite flank.  Otherwise, the warrior bungled his stroke.  This could injure his honor, offend his ancestors, and even let down his emperor.  So tests were needed, and wayfarers had to be expended.  Any wayfarer would do.”[ii]

What interests me so much about this example is that it brings up yet another iteration of cultural relativism, what Bernard Williams has called “the relativism of distance.”[iii] Williams is deeply skeptical that one can judge any culture when there is significant historical distance between the judger and the time period judged. Williams thinks that moral beliefs are radically contingent, such that it would be a mistake to assume the authority to judge those who came before us. According to Williams, judging the past is basically an empty, self-congratulatory exercise; it is patting oneself on the back for having the good fortune to be born in more enlightened times.  More specifically, Williams argues that appraisal of the past does not satisfy two conditions for genuine moral judgment: (1) shared interests and projects in common, and (2) a practical question of what to do.

 

What can we say to Williams or to our benighted anthropologists?  Is it true that we should refrain from judging cultures?  This is a difficult question, to be sure, because we should be wary of the dangers inherent to judging others—they are real.   But one thing seems certain to me, and that is that adopting cultural relativism doesn’t solve the problem of our relationship to the past and to other cultures, but arguably just makes that relationship more strained and insincere.

 

For one thing, as Mary Midgley herself pointed out, if we adopt relativism in either sense, it makes learning from other cultures and time periods very difficult (if not impossible).  For if we cannot censure another culture we also cannot praise it (for that too, would be to make a moral judgment about it, which I have blocked myself from doing). In order to enter into genuine dialogue and exchange with another culture or time period, we have to be able to identify what we find good and what we find bad in it—otherwise we are entirely closed off to it.  If we cannot enter into this conversation, which depends on moral judgment, then we have no hope of converging on a shared worldview and we have no hope of genuine cultural exchange.  A dialogue can only take place from where we are, a place of real commitments to specific values. Insofar as relativism asks us to give up our commitments, it asks us to be isolated and closed off from other cultures and time periods.  It encourages us to see the other culture as radically other, thus blocking any genuine attempts to seek common ground and a common identity.  This tends to drain the value out of historical and cross-cultural engagement, which can have dangerous political implications.

 

I want now finally to return to our opening remarks about the dictatorship of relativism.  I want to suggest that there is something totalitarian about relativism after all.

 

When all truth is relative, which really means when there is no intelligible notion of truth at all, the rational discourse that is a necessary condition for a viable democracy becomes impossible. As rational animals, we cannot escape the fact that we have to form beliefs and make choices that are informed by them, and we cannot escape the fact that some of these beliefs are going to inform our most basic social institutions.  Some values of necessity must prevail over others. If we refuse to acknowledge any objective measures of truth that are publicly accessible and in principle available to anyone, then all we have left to determine which beliefs and values determine social life is individual or collective will to power (whether this be the will of the oppressor class to maintain its status, or the will of the oppressed classes to gain power, is of no matter).  In such social conditions, the clever and ruthless will prevail, and in absence of the power to persuade people to follow them, they will have to resort to violence to ensure that their private vision prevails over its competitors.

 

So freedom and equality really do depend on truth, they really do depend on some publicly accessible measure to which those in power can be held to account. And so we were wrong to think that relativism is a friend to democracy and equality. Quite the contrary, it is its enemy. For truth helps us to transcend ourselves; without truth, we inevitably collapse into ourselves, into our own private needs and desires.  In that condition, we will either dominate or be dominated; either way, we will not be truly free.

 

[i] “Statement on Human Rights” American Anthropologist, Vol. 49, No. 4, part 1 (Oct-Dec, 1947), pp. 539-543.

[ii] Mary Midgley, “Trying Out One’s New Sword,” Heart and Mind, St. Martin’s Press, 1981.

[iii] Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Routledge, 2011.