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.
We’re presenting a short series of abstracts of the work-in-progress our scholars will present and discuss at their June 2017 Working Group Meeting.
Josef Stern is the William H. Colvin Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Chicago and from 2009-14 he was Inaugural Director of the Chicago Center for Jewish Studies.
Holiness is one of the least understood of the (religious) virtues, and there has been little discussion of it in contemporary philosophy of religion or in theological ethics. In part this may be due to the fact that, unlike all other divine attributes such as ‘merciful’ or ‘just’ that apply primarily to humans or creatures and only derivatively to God, the predicate ‘holy’—in Hebrew ‘qadosh’—is unique in applying primarily to God and only by extension to individuals, places, and times—hence, we have little grasp of its meaning as a divine attribute. This essay focuses on two conceptions of holiness, based on the biblical prescription “You shall be holy (pl.: qedoshim), for I, the Lord your God, am holy (sing: qadosh)” (Lev. 19, 2), put forth by the two great Moses of medieval Jewish thought, Moses Maimonides and Moses Nahmanides. Maimonides attempts to de-supernaturalize an earlier conception of holiness that treats it as an occult, magical, theurgic, “spiritual” power that holy people and things possess or as a kind of metaphysical or natural perfection. In its place, he proposes to reduce holiness to perfect performance of all the commandments in the Mosaic Law, commandments that he in turn re-interprets as practices that prepare the individual for an incorporeal, purely intellectual life in imitation of God. Nahmanides responds to this Maimonidean conception by arguing, first, that perfect performance of the commandments allows for scandalous behavior “between the lines of the law”—for what he calls a “scoundrel within the permissible domain of the law”—hence, for a life that is anything but holy. Second, he proposes an alternative conception according to which the prescription to be holy is meant as a corrective to precisely this kind of abuse of the law and, in turn, enables a life that is more perfect than perfect performance of the commandments. The last part of the paper explores two ways in which holiness might achieve this end and what such a life would be like.
Click the link below to hear our scholar and philosopher Josef Stern discuss Jewish medieval philosophy, his approach as a skeptical reader of Maimonides, multiple levels of meaning into the Akedah or “binding of Isaac”, and how he anticipates working with scholars in our project across the fields of philosophy, theology, and psychology will impact his approach to thinking about ideas of happiness, meaning, and perplexity.
Josef Stern is the William H. Colvin Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Chicago and from 2009-14 he was Inaugural Director of the Chicago Center for Jewish Studies. His book The Matter and Form of Maimonides’ Guide (Harvard UP, 20013) won the 2014 Book Prize for the best book on the history of philosophy published in 2013, awarded by the Board of Directors of the Journal of the History of Philosophy, and will be published soon in a slightly revised version in Hebrew as Homer ve-Tzurah Ba-Moreh Nevukhim Le-RaMBaM by Kibbutz Ha-Me’uhad Publishers, Israel. Stern is also completing another book, Quotations and Pictures, to be published in 2018 by MIT Press.
Our scholars met for their third of four working group meetings from December 12-16, 2017. Talbot Brewer gave the keynote public lecture, “What Good Are the Humanities?” on December 14, 2017 (video forthcoming).