The Grant Campus philosophy faculty invite all members of the campus community to "Brunch with Socrates," every Monday, 11:00 to 12:15, in the Philosophy Lab (Nesconset 13). Modeled after the Socrates Café gatherings developed by Christopher Philips, our "Brunch with Socrates" meetings will facilitate thoughtful and empathetic dialog on fundamental questions in a non-combative environment. And, yes: bagels will be served.
3/9/20: EHCS: Prof. Kathleen Powers-Vermaelen
This week we yield to the first presentation in the department of English and Humanities faculty colloquium series. Prof. Kathleen Poweers-Vermaelen, adjunct professor of English, will share insights from her historical novel, The Devil's Belt. For details, please see the EHCS website:https://www.sunysuffolk.edu/explore-academics/faculty-and-staff/faculty-websites/marc-fellenz/EHCS/Vermaelen.jsp
All BwS regulars are welcome to attend. Bagels will be served!
3/2/20: Philosophy of Labor
As a complement to our previous discussion on leisure, this week we'll discuss the philosophy of labor. As we saw last week, Bertrand Russell's praise of idleness includes the claim: "The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery." This stands in stark contrast to a deeply embedded cultural assumption that moral and spiritual values can only be secured by "hard work," by labor. Is there a deeper truth to this assumption that Russell and the other philosophers of leisure failed to see? Would a world without work (ushered in, say, by the progressive outsourcing of labor to automated robots and AI systems) be a utopia or a moral abyss? Are there models of labor that frame work not as slavish drudgery but as a form of liberation?
All are welcome (and you won't need to work to earn your bagel).
2/24/20: Philosophy of Leisure
Today, our time-not-working is often filled with various forms of consumption: shopping, pop culture, recreational drugs, gaming, vacation packages, etc., all of which evoke something very different from classical conceptions of idle time. Our English word ‘school’ derives from the ancient Greek word σχολή, which referred to time for leisure. While most students will think of school as anything but leisurely, this etymology speaks of a long tradition that valued idleness, play, and time spent with no objective in view as essential to human development. We’ll look at how various thinkers have sung the praises of doing nothing, and discuss the obstacles to reconnecting with σχολή today.
Take time out from your busy day and join us for some leisurely discussion (and bagels).
2/10/20: EHCS: Dr. Karen Dovell
This week we yield to the first presentation in the department of English and Humanities faculty colloquium series. Dr. Karen Dovell, professor of English, will share her research on the post-reconstruction author Harriet Prescott Spofford. Details here: https://www.sunysuffolk.edu/explore-academics/faculty-and-staff/faculty-websites/marc-fellenz/EHCS/Dovell.jsp
For our final Brunch with Socrates meeting of the semester (Monday, 11:00-12:15 in N-13), we’ll discuss the philosophy of gender. It’s a bedrock principle of gender studies that gender – as opposed to biological sex – is socially constructed. But as patriarchy, heteronormativity and the gender binary face deconstruction, what will be constructed in their place? Are essentialist conceptions of gender and sexuality still viable? What are the ethical and epistemological implications for a world in which gender and sexuality are understood to be fluid rather than fixed?
We’ll discuss how contemporary philosophers and literary theorists have tried to navigate these questions. As always, all are welcome and bagels will be served.
11/18/19: Free speech absolutism?
Freedom of speech is a cherished ideal in liberal societies. But with rampant abuse of social media ushering in a post-truth era, the wisdom of that ideal is drawing fresh scrutiny. Some political philosophers and social critics argue that the First Amendment no longer functions primarily to protect individual rights of free expression, but instead has been transformed into a means to protect entrenched power. On Monday, November 18 (11:00-12:15, N-13), we’ll explore these and other problems surrounding freedom of speech in the contemporary world.
All are welcome. No one will be censored. Bagels will be served.
11/04/19: Don't know much about (the philosophy of) history
Does history proceed in a straightforward, linear fashion? If so, does the line point upward (progressive history) or nowhere in particular (pessimism)? Perhaps history follows an arc, with a beginning, middle and apocalyptic end? Some cultures interpret history as cyclical: what does that mean, and might that model allow us to better locate our lives in the narrative of human existence?
On Monday (11:00-12:15, N-13) we’ll explore these questions. All are welcome. Bagels—the classic symbol of the circular nature of time—will be served.
What’s in your head….?
Next Monday (11:00-12:15, N-13), in honor of Halloween, we’ll discuss zombies in philosophy and literature.
In philosophy, the “zombie problem” raises important issues in the philosophy of mind: Can we be certain that a being that looked and acted like a human being actually has the subjective experiences of a human being? How do you know the “person” standing next to you isn’t really just a “zombie,” with no subjective mind?
In literature and film, is the rise of the undead just a simple horror trope, or does it express the unique anxieties we face living in world where capitalism has run amok and our social, personal and mental lives are manipulated by the impersonal algorithms of social media giants?
All are welcome. Feel free to come dressed as your favorite undead philosopher.
Braaaains, uh, bagels will be served.
10/21/19: Disability Studies
This week we'll discuss the range of ethical and epistemological problems that philosophers have raised in connection with the concept of disability. Is it possible to have a completely objective, scientific definition of disability? Or (much as critical theorists have argued with respect to concepts like "race" and "gender") is "disability" more a social construction than a medical reality? Beyond the legal requirement to abide by regulations such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, what is our moral obligation--both individually and collectively--to accommodate those with physical limitations and cognitive differences? What challenges related to these issues have we as faculty and students faced in the classroom?
10/14/19: Issues in Native American Philosophy
In honor of Indigenous People’s Day, we’ll discuss issues in Native American philosophy:
- From the use of Native American imagery as mascots to the political and legal rights of indigenous peoples, there is wide range of moral questions that emerge from the Native American experience.
- What ideas in traditional Native American thought have exerted influence in Euro-American philosophy? Breaking past the “noble savage” stereotype, what substantive themes in Native American thought can inform traditional debates in Western Philosophy?
- How have depictions of Native Americans in American art and literature added to their oppression or aided their liberation?
10/07/19: The Season of Awe
In honor of the holy week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we’ll reflect on the important Judaic concepts of awe and atonement. How do these concepts function both within and without a religious context? What value can they have in an increasingly secular world? How have various philosophers and literary figures reflected on these ideas?
All are welcome. Awe-inspiring bagels will be served.
9/30/19: Limitarianism: The most blasphemous idea in contemporary discourse?
The undisputed goodness of “making it big” is part of capitalist ideology and American mythology. But might there be something morally problematic about the unlimited accumulation of wealth, even if it is not ill-gotten? “Limitarians” such as philosopher Ingrid Robeyns think so; their arguments are so at odds with much of our current political and economic thought that they have been described as tantamount to blasphemy (http://crookedtimber.org/2019/09/21/the-most-blasphemous-idea-in-contemporary-discourse/). We’ll look critically at the ethical arguments advanced by limitarians and consider some of their practical economic effects.
All are welcome, no limits on the bagels and OJ.
9/23/19: Truth and Fiction
In the age of fake news, alternative facts and the internet inversion, distinguishing truth from fiction may seem more difficult than ever. But does the problem run deeper than the pathologies of our current social and political climate? Are the tensions between truth and fiction essential to the human fabric? Might fiction be more fundamental to human experience than objective truth? We’ll discuss the insights on these questions offered by philosopher and historian Yuval Noah Harari (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/24/opinion/why-fiction-trumps-truth.html?rref=collection%2Fspotlightcollection%2Fthe-big-ideas&action=click&contentCollection=opinion®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=7&pgtype=collection). We’ll also look at what literary theories have to say about the relationship between truth and fiction in literature.
All are welcome. Real, non-fictional bagels will be served.
9/16/19: Trolleyology and Moral Uncertainty
The Trolley Problem, now standard in introductory ethics classes, was originally conceived as a simple thought experiment in moral philosophy. However, it has inspired scores of philosophical articles and books, enough to spawn its own subdivision in ethics—“trolleylogy”—and has even worked its way into popular culture (an episode of TV’s The Good Place was dedicated to it). But how useful are artificial thought experiments for clarifying our moral thinking? How much is lost when ethicists focus on abstract moral theory at the expense of the concrete details of our practical lives?
Join us Monday, September 16 (11:00 to 12:15, Nesconset 13) for the first “Brunch with Socrates” meeting of the semester. We’ll discuss the trolley problem, and look at a critical perspective on the problem in a recent essay in Philosophy Now (https://philosophynow.org/issues/132/Ethics_and_Uncertainty). All are welcome, light refreshments will be served.
On hiatus until the fall semester!
The May 6 meeting was the last Brunch with Socrates event of the 2018-19 academic year. During the past two semesters of BwS, we ate a lot of bagels, discussed a lot of interesting philosophers, and developed some camaraderie around our shared interest in exploring unusual and challenging ideas. The philosophy faculty would like to thank all our colleagues and students who participated this year, and we look forward starting again in September.
5/6/19: Having our ethics and eating it too
Historian Benjamin Aldes Wurgaft has produced an interesting account of the search for “cultured” or “in vitro” meat: meat produced from cells that are grown in a laboratory environment rather than taken from an animal’s carcass. (Here’s a short piece of his work: https://hedgehogreview.com/issues/animals-and-us/articles/biotech-cockaigne-of-the-vegan-hopeful)
His analysis raises interesting questions about the ethics of our use of nonhuman animals, as well as some interesting reflections on what our attitudes toward animals reveal about our humanity.
4/29/19: Discipline and Punish
CUNY Prof. Ruth Wilson Gilmore has spent the last three decades advocating for a radical idea: the abolition (not just reform) of prisons. (You can read an NYT profile of her movement here: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/17/magazine/prison-abolition-ruth-wilson-gilmore.html)
Counterintuitive ideas are a mainstay of philosophical reflection, so we will explore the arguments of the prison abolitionists through the lens of classical and modern philosophical theories of punishment.
4/22/19: What we owe the ancients
Last week, we gave attention to the classical ideal of beauty. While our discussion touched on many modern issues, the topic raises a more general question: Why should we care about classical ideals? Although philosophy is a living discipline with much to add to our thinking about contemporary issues, the word 'philosophy' can still conjure the image of privileged ancient Greeks in togas and -- truth be told -- a lot of philosophical texts and conversations still rehash the ideas of dead white men. Is there an enduring value to the philosophical ideas of those who lived in the pre-modern world? Why in the 21st century should we ask students to study the thoughts of ancient and medieval thinkers?
Our discussion will be led by Prof. Simpson, our resident expert on ancient and medieval philosophy.
We’ve talked a lot about things like death, social injustice and moral failure in our BwS meetings this year. This Monday, we look for solace in a classical ideal: Beauty.
In a post-modern artworld where even human excrement, animal corpses and cigarette butts are deemed legitimate artistic media, in a social media era in which beauty is equated with make-up tutorials by YouTube influencers, it can seem that aesthetics has devolved into a vapid, incoherent wasteland. Is there a deeper meaning to be found in the concept of beauty? Does our capacity to take pleasure in genuine beauty reveal something important about our humanity that contemporary culture is ignoring?
We’ll discuss the insights of traditional and contemporary philosophers about these questions. Beautiful bagels will be served.
4/8/19: The Problem of Consciousness
Explaining how it is that humans are capable of conscious thought and subjective experience has been a perennial philosophical problem. Consciousness has often been referred to as a “mystery,” and that is reflected in the fact that many traditional philosophers discussed consciousness in spiritual terms, as the capacity of an immaterial soul.
Today the problem has a more this-worldly urgency. As humans are rethinking their ubiquitous exploitation of other animals, we face the question of whether other animals have conscious experiences that are at all comparable to our own. As artificial intelligence continues to supersede human capabilities, we must face the question—once reserved for science fiction—of whether sufficiently sophisticated machines can ever be capable of consciousness.
The starting point of our discussion will be the work of neuroscientist Giulio Tononi (here’s a recent article on his work: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190326-are-we-close-to-solving-the-puzzle-of-consciousness) whose “integrated information” theory of consciousness is attracting attention from scientists and philosophers alike.
The term ‘theodicy’ refers to the attempts by theologians to meet a standard atheist challenge: How could an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good god allow so much gratuitous suffering to exist in the world? In his recent book, sociologist Nicholas Christakis gives this problem a secular twist. He coined the term ‘sociodicy’ to refer to his efforts to vindicate our social existence despite the individual and collective harms for which humans are responsible. (You can see an interesting NYT piece on Christakis here: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/19/opinion/nicholas-christakis-yale.html)
Christakis’ argument touches on a perennial philosophical question—one that we’ve touched on in several of our brunches: Are human beings essentially selfish and violent, with social strictures being the only things that prevent us from devolving into chaos, or is our essential goodness undermined by dysfunctional social and political institutions? This question takes new forms in a world of 8 billion persons forming social relationships that our earliest ancestors could never have imagined.
3/18/19: The End
3/11/19: Is greatness overrated? (make-up for 3/4 snow cancellation)
2/25/19: The Ethics of Being Born?
Philosophers have had much to say about death, but what about birth?
- Philosopher Alison Stone argues that the fact that we are natal is just important to understanding human existence as is our mortality: https://theconversation.com/philosophy-we-obsess-about-death-so-why-dont-we-think-more-about-being-born-109674
- Last time, we mentioned the ideas of so-called “anti-natalists” such as David Benatar (see https://www.newyorker.com/culture/persons-of-interest/the-case-for-not-being-born) who argue that the inevitable pains of human existence justify the counterintuitive position that we should not have been born at all.
- Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre argued in an equally counterintuitive way that by continuing to live we in effect choose our births and assume responsibility for the lives that follow from them.
Collectively, these ideas frame an interesting field of inquiry: the ethics of being born.
2/11/19: Would Human Extinction Be a Tragedy?
In October we had a discussion on environmental ethics and our responsibility to future
generations. We begin the spring semester with another look at these issues, focusing
our discussion on philosopher Todd May's piece, "Would Human Extinction Be a Tragedy?" May makes the interesting case that the answer to this curious question may be more
complex and ambiguous than it at first appears.
12/17/18: No meeting!
Good luck with finals. We'll pick it up again in the spring, same time, same location!
12/10/18: The freedom to believe?
Are beliefs purely private matters, individual possessions that are only subject to
our own whims and wishes? Are they instead public matters with implications we have
a duty to consider? Does it depend on the belief? How do we decide? These questions
fall under the umbrella of what philosophers have termed the ethics of belief.
12/3/18: What's the deal with math?
Legend has it that Plato had inscribed over the door to his school, the Academy, the
words: "Let no one enter who is ignorant of geometry." Whether or not that legend
is true, there is no doubt that the nature and meaning of mathematical concepts has
been of interest to philosophers throughout history and throughout the world. Unfortunately,many
students today are not only uninterested in those questions but are also downright
"mathphobic." Why do so many see math as something to be afraid of? Can some philosophical
ideas about the nature of mathematical entities make the subject less fearsome?
11/26/18: Ethics and Social Media
Today we'll discuss philosopher S. Matthew Liao's NY Times op-ed piece, "Do You Have a Moral Duty to Leave Facebook"?
In honor of the Thanksgiving holiday--and as evidence of the fact that philosophers take nothing for granted--this week we ask the question: What does it mean to be grateful? Is gratitude a moral virtue? Do we have a duty to be grateful, and if so under what circumstances? Is gratitude not something morally required, but rather only instrumentally valuable (e.g., good because it leads to other positive emotions and behaviors)?
No turkey and stuffing on the menu, but we will have bagels.
11/12/18: Intelligence--artificial and human
In our past two meetings on the philosophy of education, we touched on anxieties faced by both faculty and students regarding how to prepare for the disruptions that will come with technological advances in areas such as robotics and artificial intelligence. These technologies raise important economic, political and ethical questions, as well as fundamental philosophical questions about the nature of intelligence and consciousness.
In an op-ed this week by Portland State University computer science professor Melanie Mitchell, she argues that the optimism from tech gurus that we will soon have artificial intelligence that rivals human intelligence is misguided because we are not even close to knowing how human beings achieve understanding and meaning from our experiences—the deepest aspects of human intelligence.
Will this technological challenge ever be overcome? Is it possible (and not just in science fiction) that we eventually will produce machines that can do everything that the human mind can do (and more)? If so, what does that imply about our nature as humans? If not, how do we nurture those uniquely human abilities that will be vital in a world increasingly shaped by machines?
11/5/18: Part II of our discussion of the philosophy of education: Today is the start
of priority registration, a timely opportunity for students to ask themselves: Why
am I here?
Students: What are your expectations for your time in college, and what do they imply for your
understanding of what education is really all about? Have those expectations been
met during your time at the College? What can you, the faculty and the College do
to make your experience here more fulfilling? Collectively, how can we help the institution
remain true to the ideals of higher education?
10/29/18: A special joint meeting with the Grant Campus Pedagogy Committee. Our question for discussion: What is teaching?
Socrates claimed that his role as a teacher was not to impart knowledge but to act as a "midwife" for the ideas of his students. Heidegger argued that the teacher must prepare students to confront their authentic humanity, in turn preparing them to care for the humanity of others. The history of philosophy offers many other models for what constitutes genuine teaching and learning.
Faculty: At a deep level, how do you see your role as an educator?
Students: At a deep level, what do you expect from the faculty you work with at the College?
10/22/18: What is our moral responsibility to future generations?
In our past two meetings, we discussed how moral responsibility can extend back in
time, requiring us to consider whether we are obligated to offer redress for historical
wrongs that we did not ourselves commit. This week, we look toward the future: What
moral obligations do we have to future generations of humans who have not yet been
born? This question can be framed around many different issues, but is given additional
urgency by the pressing environmental challenges we face today. The most recent Intergovernmental
Panel on Climate Change report makes very dire predictions about future catastrophes
that will occur if we don't take immediate and radical steps to reduce carbon emissions.
Political and economic considerations aside, do we have a moral obligation to ensure
a habitable world in the future?
10/15/18: Part 2 of our discussion: What is our moral responsibility for the wrongs of history?
Last week, in recognition of the controversy surrounding Columbus Day, we explored our moral responsibilities in regard to atrocities that were committed in the past but that still affect our present social circumstance. Since our conversation only touched the surface of the issue, we've decided to continue the discussion for an additional week.
10/08/18: What is our moral responsibility for the wrongs of history?
Today is Columbus Day. Some will celebrate Italian-American heritage and the "discovery of America" by Europeans, while others will memorialize the genocidal violence directed at North America's indigenous peoples for five centuries. How should we who have inherited this complex history respond? Do we bear any moral responsibility for addressing the atrocities that our ancestors committed, or does my moral responsibility end with my own actions and decisions?
10/1/18: Rational animals?
In our previous two meetings, our conversations touched upon the relationship between reason and emotion. Aristotle famously described human beings as ζῷον λόγον ἔχον – the animal that has reason. Throughout the Western philosophical tradition, many other thinkers agreed that rationality is the defining, essentially human attribute. But what of the non-rational parts of our nature? What role do the emotions play in our humanity, and in how we interpret and understand the world? For better or worse, do our emotions have a stronger influence than rationality on what we believe?
9/24/18: What can we make of “truth” and “honesty”?
Last week we explored the question: What makes for a good human life? Our conversation touched on several topics, including how knowledge, truth and honesty function in the good life. This week we explore those topics further. How and why are truth and honesty to be valued? How has the concept of truth been used and abused? Are truth claims always relative the person or group that makes them? If not, why is it so hard for us to agree on the answers to important questions? If so, are all “important” questions really just matters of opinion?
9/17/18: What makes for a good human life?
Philosophy is the love of wisdom, and being wise is much more than being intelligent or knowledgeable. It requires insight into how to live well, in a manner befitting our nature as human beings. Philosophers have explored many different concepts of what the good life for a human being entails, including happiness, virtue, flourishing, freedom and authenticity. Join us for an exploration of these and other ways of defining the human good.
For information, please contact me at email@example.com.