Photos of our June 2017 Working Group Meeting

Twenty of our scholars met in Chicago for their final working group meeting to discuss their work in progress with each other across the disciplines of psychology, theology, and philosophy.

Find more photos on our Flickr page.

 

 

More photos from this session can be found on our Flickr page.

 

Dispatches from last day of our final working group meeting

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(from left: Josef Stern, Heather C Lench, Candace Vogler, Talbot Brewer, Stephen Brock, Jennifer A. Frey, Jean Porter, Matthias Haase, Erik Angner, Thomas Joseph White, Michael Gorman, Katherine Kinzler, Kevin Flannery, Reinhard Huetter, Robert C. Roberts, Anselm Mueller (not pictured but in attendence: Tahera Qutbuddin, Angela Knobel, David Shatz)

Not on Twitter? Here’s a sampling of our live-tweeting from our final day:

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Photos and Opening Remarks: Practical Truth and Virtue

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On April 21-22, our co-PI, Jennifer A. Frey, hosted a philosophy workshop at the University of South Carolina titled, “Practical Truth: Reflections on the Aristotelian Tradition.”  Frey hosted an international group of philosophers on campus in Columbia, SC to discuss the importance of the concept of practical truth, both historically within the Aristotelian tradition and in terms of its relevance for contemporary philosophical debates about action, practical reason and virtue.  She is currently pursuing the possibility of publishing the essays in an edited volume.

In her opening discussion of practical truth, Professor Frey discussed her reasons for thinking the concept of practical truth is central to a philosophical account of virtue. What follows is a condensed version of her basic argument.

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Let us start with the claim that the knowledge the virtuous person possesses is a distinctive kind of knowledge, what the ancients and medievals called practical knowledge or practical wisdom. What marks the difference between practical and theoretical knowledge and wisdom?  Well, traditionally the thought was that it is grounded in the distinction between theoretical and practical reasoning, which Aristotle differentiated in terms of distinctive ends or aims (their distinctive work or operation as modes of reasoning).  Theoretical reasoning, Aristotle argued, aims at an understanding of being or what is, and its measure is truth; such reasoning is finished (i.e., its work is done) when truth is grasped intellectually.  Theoretical wisdom, the perfection of theoretical reasoning, aims to know general and timeless truths about the highest or best objects of contemplation.  But practical knowledge, by contrast, aims at praxis, at realizing or making actual a good human life through deliberative choices of certain actions and activities; it aims to realize what is truly good in particulars, in human actions.  If we say that its measure is also truth, it must be truth of a special kind, one that somehow hooks up with realizing what is truly good.  It cannot be a truth that ends with an intellectual grasp of what is; rather, it would have to be a truth that is achieved in the living of a certain life, in a praxis.

It is worth noting, in this regard, that Aristotle thought one could possess theoretical but not practical wisdom—theoretical but not practical truth.  Suppose, for instance, that someone excels in math, physics, chemistry, biology, and general cosmology.  Such a person grasps the way things are ordered at the most basic and fundamental level, and he can apply these most general principles to explain much of what happens in the world.  Suppose he has devoted his life to this kind of knowledge.  Of course, this in no way guarantees or even tends to the cultivation of his moral virtue. Perhaps he is lascivious with women outside of the lab; perhaps he is willing to lie, steal, and cheat when it allows him more time and grant money to pursue his passion for science, perhaps he is a coward and incapable of helping others in need; and so on.  None of this necessarily impacts his ability to do great science; and, more importantly, nothing about doing great science inoculates him against developing a gross moral character.

It wouldn’t change anything, I suspect, if we added theology to the list of studies to which our imagined knower dedicated himself.  Being able to argue about the metaphysics of the Trinity does not necessarily make you a loving or good person either.  A mere change of topic won’t cut it.  For the same reason, one might even be a great moral theorist and have a bad moral character; that is, one might have theoretical knowledge about practical subject matters but not the practical dispositions that lead to making good decisions and living well.

This goes back, once again, to the different inherent teleologies or inherent aims of the two different kinds of reasoning.  Practical reasoning is not practical in virtue of having a special kind of content; it is not ordinary theoretical thought and inference suddenly turned to the topic of human good. Practical reasoning is practical because it aims to realize some good or end that the agent desires—most especially the desire to live well or to flourish.  Such reasoning depends on the agent wanting to realize some end or objective or good; thus desire for some good is essential to practical reasoning, it is the arche or starting point of such reasoning.  This explains why Aristotle defines practical truth as “truth in accordance with right desire.”

Now, if practical knowledge and reasoning essentially aims at action, and if such thought depends for its teleology upon a certain appetitive orientation, then it can only be successful when the agent brings about the goods in question through the use of this very thought and reasoning.  So it is somewhat misleading to say that the practically wise man knows how to live, because again, he may know this as a theory rather than as a praxis.  To come to know the praxis would require a different kind of training that the one the moral theorist typically receives.  What we might strictly speaking say of the practically wise man, if he is really practically wise, is that he knows he is living well, not simply that he knows how to live well, generally speaking.  For the knowledge is operative in the practically wise and is the explanation of what he does—of his choices and actions.  The manifestation of the knowledge is primarily in what he does rather than what he says.

Thus it seems to me that there is a difference between a theoretical conception of living well, which the moral theorist might possess, and a practical conception of living well, which only the practically wise possess. It also strikes me that the good or happy life is one that displays a kind of truth about human nature and human beings—a truth about what our good is.  But again, this is a distinctively practical kind of truth that is displayed in living well, not simply in the possession of correct general propositions or principles.  One sees practical wisdom and practical truth principally or paradigmatically in action, as it were, not standing behind it.

In contemporary virtue ethics, there is almost no discussion of practical truth.  But if the line of reasoning I have outlined is roughly correct, virtue ethics needs an account of a distinctively practical notion of truth just as much as it needs a distinctively practical account of knowledge and wisdom.  The point of the workshop (and eventually, the collected volume of papers) is to begin to advance such an account in light of our understanding of the Aristotelian tradition, broadly construed to include Aquinas and the work of Elizabeth Anscombe.

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”.

Call for papers: Virtues in the Public Sphere | Conference with our partner the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues,

We’re happy to post this CFP for the sixth annual conference of one of our partners, the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, University of Birmingham, featuring keynotes by two of our scholars, Talbot Brewer and John Haldane.

 

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Virtues in the Public Sphere

Oriel College, Oxford, January 4–6, 2018

The sixth annual conference of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, University of Birmingham

Open Call for Papers

Virtues in the Public Sphere

 

In recent years, we have witnessed increased polarisation, not only between, but within societies, and the breakdown of civic friendships, in particular as a result of ‘political earthquakes’ that have hit both sides of the Atlantic. Questions have emerged about the relationship between public and private virtues. Do ‘sinners’ perhaps make better politicians than ‘saints’ – and are certain private vices, such as duplicity, necessary in order for the public sphere to function?

 

The main aim of this conference is to explore the role of virtues in the public sphere. Is there a virtue of ‘civic friendship’ and how can it be cultivated? Is the language of virtue apt for carving out a discursive path between illiberal radicalism and post-truth relativism? More specifically, does the language of virtue indicate an ethical and political approach that calls into question both extreme illiberal and liberal habits of mind – or does it carry an individualistic and moralistic bias that makes it inapplicable to political disagreements? What are the virtues of a ‘good’ politician or civil servant? Should we care whether a skilled diplomat or surgeon is also a good person? Can virtue be ascribed to collectives and institutions such as universities and schools and, if yes, what would, for example, a ‘virtuous school’ look like? Are character education and civic education comrades or competitors? What is the relationship between an ethos of good character in a school and the ethos of the neighbouring community? How, if at all, does virtue guide civic engagement and a pedagogy towards the public good? How do public virtues inform a social ethos of moral responsibility? And, at the most general level, what does it mean to talk about the ‘politics of virtue’?

 

The aim of the 2018 Jubilee Centre annual conference is to bring together experts from a range of disciplines to explore those questions and many more. Can theorists from philosophy, education, sociology, history and psychology learn from each other’s work? How can insights from theory and practice be integrated?

 

We hereby send out an open call for presentations falling under the broad theme of the conference. While our focus this time is on public virtues, we will also look favourably upon proposals that explore other character-related issues from a social scientific, philosophical or practice-oriented perspective. There will be parallel sessions devoted to general topics in the area of character, virtue and character education. We particularly welcome proposals from teachers and other practitioners.

 

We ask interested parties to send us an abstract of about 500 words to jubileecentrepapers@contacts.bham.ac.uk (marked ORIEL PROPOSAL in the subject line) before July 1, 2017. We will send out notifications of acceptance before the end of July.  The conference fee is £150 and covers full board at Oriel College (2 nights), including the formal conference dinner. Details of how to pay the registration fee will be provided in due course.