What John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University Has to Teach Us

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University Church of St Mary the Virgin, where John Henry Newman became vicar in 1828. Photo by Arnaud Malon.

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.

Reinhard Hütter is Professor of Christian Theology at The Catholic University of America and Duke University.

In my last paper I argued that any robust philosophical, let one, theological account of happiness and self-transcendence presupposes an account of finality or teleology. I advanced the case that without an antecedent understanding of the specific nature and the distinct finality of the human person, it is rather futile to gain clarity about the nature of authentic happiness, of genuine self-transcendence and last, but not least, about the question of a perfect continuous state of ek-static bliss, surpassingly fulfilled self-transcendence, or, what the Catholic tradition calls, the beatific vision. Hidden disagreements on this fundamental metaphysical level (human beings are not persons but at best super-primates; they do not have rational souls, but the mind is an epiphenomenon of neurological processes; the universe is bereft of finality, because there does not exist a transcendent First Cause and Final End, usually called God) give rise to notions of happiness that are not only philosophically underdetermined but mutually exclusive, if not simply equivocal. I held that one important step toward a clarification of these matters is a straightforward description of a particular, comprehensive account of finality, self-transcendence, and happiness, an account that lays bare its philosophical and theological first principles.

In this paper I take another step by addressing one of the most daunting contemporary obstacles to a rigorous and comprehensive inquiry into the nature of happiness, self-transcendence, and the meaning of life—the late modern research university and its self-imposed limitation to the empirically falsifiable supported by a tacit but tenacious commitment to what can be variously described as the immanent frame, secularism, instrumentalism, and the privileging of the quantifiable and computable as the proper object of what is a “true” science. It is unavoidable that inquiries that transcend this self-imposed limitation of reason, because of their allegedly non-scientific character, are banned from the public space of university discourse and relegated to the realm of the subjective, to the private space of individual curiosity. Or such inquiries must be transformed in such a way that they fit the immanentist and empiricist framework. Certain disciplines (the sad and interiorly disarrayed remnant of the “humanities”) that engage in such inquiries may exist on the margins of the university as historically descriptive, textually interpretive, and conceptually analytic enterprises that may contribute, next to rigorous disciplines like mathematics and cybernetics, to a soft but still in some ways not completely useless propaedeutic to the real work of science. This reality is challenged by an understanding of the university as an institution that essentially engages the whole breadth of reason and does not deny its grandeur in any shape or form. It is in such a university, I suggest, where inquiries into happiness, virtue, and the meaning of life stand at the very center of what a university is about. It is John Henry Newman who articulates the idea of such a university with a still unsurpassed clarity and force.

Holiday Greetings from our Scholars

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December 2016 Working Group Meeting with (most of) the scholars of VHML: (from left) Josef Stern, Heather Lench, Kristján Kristjánsson, Jennifer Frey, Fr Thomas Joseph White, Dan McAdams, Candace Vogler, Marc Berman, Darcia Narvaez, Owen Flanagan, Angela Knobel, Reinhard Huetter, Michael Gorman, Paul Wong, Talbot Brewer, David Shatz.
Photo by Valerie Wallace.

Questions our scholars are asking – part 1 of 2

We’ve distilled our Scholars’ research for this semester into respective questions; tomorrow we’ll post eight more. And in forthcoming posts, we’ll feature in-depth look at each. For now, we thought our readers would enjoy pondering each question. Together, they can read as a kind of meditation on the inter-relatedness of virtue, happiness, and deep meaning in life.

Herbst Wald Panorama im goldenen Sonnenschein
Click photo to make it larger.

Can cognitive effort be measured?

~Marc Berman, University of Chicago

 

What good are the humanities?

~ Talbot Brewer, University of Virginia

 

What work does anger do across moralities?

What work ought anger to do in a particular morality?

~ Owen Flanagan, Duke University

 

How can Thomistic notions of of Temperance enlarge and enrich our understanding of that virtue?

~ Jennifer Frey, University of South Carolina

 

What is the role of friendship in human flourishing?

~Michael Gorman, The Catholic University of America

 

Given my circumstances, can I do what befits a human being? 

~Matthias Haase, University of Chicago

 

Can we achieve happiness without an understanding of the ultimate finality of the human soul?

~Reinhard Huetter, Duke Divinity School

 

Can human character experience sudden moral change?

~Angela Knobel, The Catholic University of America

 

How is Aristotle’s meta-virtue of megalopsychia, or magnanimity, useful to us today?

Can immoral people undergo sudden moral conversions?

~Kristján Kristjánsson, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, University of Birmingham

Days 1-2 Working Group Meeting in Chicago – photos

Our 2nd working group meeting of scholars met June 6-10, 2016 at the University of Chicago in the beautiful Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society. Although the sessions were closed, you can read our scholars’ abstracts for their June Meeting Topics here and see more photos up in our Flickr album for the week.