SUNY Oneonta

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Department of Philosophy
160 Fitzelle Hall
SUNY Oneonta
Oneonta, NY 13820-4015

Phone: (607) 436-2456
Fax: (607) 436-2435

 

 
 

Philosophy & the Public Realm PREFACE

 
 

I am always amazed by the energy and enthusiasm that students bring to our annual Undergraduate Philosophy Conference. If the fifth incarnation of this youthful exuberance (March 31-April 1, 2000) was an exception to the rule, it was only in the sense of “more so.” We began Friday afternoon with an inaugural presentation by Ashok Malhotra (SUNY Oneonta) titled Yoga: A Philosophical Demonstration and Guided Meditation. In addition to providing an overview of the multidimensional nature of Yoga, including some of its most popular versions in the west, Professor Malhotra demonstrated a variety of physical and meditative exercises associated with Yoga. Sitting in a half-lotus position in a green Kurta Pajama, he encouraged the audience to join him on the carpeted floor of the Craven Lounge. Many did. Even those who opted to sit in chairs were amazed by the extent to which the Yoga helped them relax and get rid of some of those nervous jitters that haunt even seasoned professors on the eve of a presentation.

With some quick rearranging of the furniture, the room was readied for the first student presentations. In a session that prophetically carried the same title as this volume, Malinda Foster of the University of Michigan set the pace with a dynamic presentation about the silence of Philosophy in Plato’s Crito. We had encouraged students to present their ideas to the audience in as engaging a manner as possible (vs. standing at the podium and reading from their paper), and Malinda had clearly taken the advice to heart. She walked back and forth in front of the room, conveying not only her ideas, but her enthusiasm as well. Katherine Collins (University of Massachusetts) and Tamara Johnson (Binghamton University) followed with presentations entitled “Arendt, Heidegger, and the Decline of the Public Realm” and “Political Noise and Vociferous Silence: Heidegger and Nazism.”

Following a short break the audience reassembled, eager to see what goodies the second round of student papers might bring. The audience was primed, but nothing could have prepared them for the raw energy that John Kaag of Penn State was about to unleash. Leading the session on Language Games with a paper titled “The Mask Unmasked: The Role of Hypocrisy in the Dialectic of Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” John was ready to burst at the seams. Rather than presenting his paper as such, he provided an angst-ridden account of the dialectical process that had brought him face to face with Zarathustra. Chiding his audience, he asked “Have we moved that far away from Hegel? … Are we that worried about talking in the first person? Does philosophy mean nothing but a system we can evaluate?” Without waiting for answers to these rhetorical questions, he explained:

I have this nice little highlighted paper. It’s not going to work—because that’s not what it’s about. I’m going to talk about how I came to this paper, how I wrote this paper, how it affected me right away, what insecurities I went through. I’m not scared to say “This is how I felt.” I’m willing to share it with all of you. And even in that there is hypocrisy.

Each paper is assigned a student discussant to raise questions, provide commentary, and offer alternative perspectives. Since John had strayed so far from his prepared text, his discussant had to assimilate the changes and provide a cogent on-the-spot assessment. Fortunately, John’s discussant was a conference veteran, accustomed to some of the unanticipated twists and turns that come with authentic intellectual exchange. Dan Bristol (SUNY Oneonta) began with a single sustained word: “Wow!” Then, holding aloft a copy of John’s essay, he instructed the audience:

If any of you at any point get a chance to read this, do so. This is a perfectly marvelous piece of work. … This is beyond all doubt the most beautifully written, clear, and masterful work on Nietzsche I have ever seen. You have done a perfectly wonderful job and I salute you.

I also want to salute you for what you just did. … Zarathustra says “I do not want to be read; I want to be learned by heart.” …

“By heart” is what John just did. He took Nietzsche home.

Dan put it well: John “took Nietzsche home.” He gave a presentation full of heart, not empty intellectual abstractions. For those who did not, like Dan, have the opportunity to ready John’s manuscript, this volume represents a second chance. “The Mask Unmasked” is presented in its entirety on pages 127-142.

What was clear, long before John had finished his presentation, was that he had thrown down the gauntlet, issuing a challenge to all of the other participants to set aside personal insecurities or concern with appearances in favor of honest philosophical engagement. The next two speakers, Andrew Wilson and Zachary Haines, both of Macalester College, met the challenge with poise and resolve. By the time they had concluded their papers, “The Nature of Language: Public and Private” and “Wittgenstein and Naturalism,” the entire assembly was ready for dinner. Around the tables in the Otsego Grille, conversations raged about all six of the presentations that had launched the conference. Those who would present the following day had seen any preconceptions they might have had about the conference blown out of the water. It was clear that this would be a weekend during which they would have to think outside the boxes.

That evening, we were all treated to a keynote presentation by Joanna Crosby of Morgan State University. In Pragmatism and the Future of Confucianism in China, Professor Crosby explained that life on the streets of China is more complex than many scholars care to acknowledge. Then, in an intriguing twist in cross-cultural studies, she proposed the possibility that American Pragmatism as well as Confucianism, both philosophies that emphasize practice over theory and actuality over metaphysics, can help heal the damage inflicted on Chinese culture by the Cultural Revolution.

Saturday morning began with a session on Ethics: Theory and Practice. While we could scarcely know it in advance, it was here that two of the presentations destined to receive President’s Awards were delivered. Rachel Houchins of East Tennessee State opened the session with “Feminine Ethical Theories: Their Validity Tested.” As a sensitive and perceptive student who planned to continue her studies in medicine rather than philosophy, Rachel was concerned not only with the manner in which traditional ethical theories have excluded women, but also with the practical application of alternative theories. Surprising many members of the audience, she took the theories of thinkers like Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings to task. Despite the surface appeal of an “ethics of care,” Rachel argued that the approach simply fails to provide sufficiently clear, unequivocal guidance to resolve the complex issues with which health care professionals are forced to deal.

Rachel’s paper was followed by “The Practice of Physician Assisted Suicide Supported by Kantian Ethics” by Seyra Ahmed of Virginia Commonwealth University. Because Kant’s theories place strong emphasis on personal autonomy, and because the prohibition of Physician Assisted Suicide undermines the ability of individuals to exercise their autonomy, Seyra argued that a charitable reading of Kant’s theories would support legalization of the practice. Because Kant also explicitly rejects suicide as morally unacceptable, discussion was spirited and robust.

The final paper of the session, by Michael Alan Payne of Virginia Commonwealth University, carried a title that made some of the participants a bit nervous: “A Father’s Rights in Abortion: Proof That He Has A Say.” Would this, they wondered, be a genuine philosophical investigation or a narrow-minded rejection of a woman’s right to choose? To Michael’s credit, he quickly won the confidence of even the most cynical skeptics. They may not have left the room agreeing with his final conclusions, but they did come to appreciate the honesty, integrity, and intellectual as well as moral commitment of this charming young man.

After lunch, students had to choose between two concurrent sessions: Freedom, Happiness and the Human Condition and Truth and Beauty. What a choice! In the first, Christine Cinquino of St. Vincent’s College discussed “The Exhilarating Freedom! Hope in Existentialism,” Malinda Foster returned to the podium to analyze “The Problem of Happiness in Nietzsche’s ‘Use and Abuse of History’,” and Eric Bergmann of Binghamton University presented “The Extraordinary: Movements in Dostoevsky and Nietzsche.” In the second, Scott Gleason of SUNY Potsdam discussed “Towards a Processean Aesthetics Within a Whiteheadian Metaphysics,” Iain Tucker Brown of St. Mary’s College followed with “On the Event of Truth: A Discussion of Art, Truth and the Primal Conflict in Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art,” and Jason Baumgarth of the University of Minnesota concluded with “Tradition and Modern Meaning: Society and Relative Truth.”

Each of the presentations was a unique, exceptional experience—for the audience as well as the presenter. During the break, students who attended Session A compared notes with those who attended Session B, then made their choices for the next, final session of student presentations. Would it be Multiple Perspectives: The Search for Common Ground or Knowing Whereof We Speak: Language, Experience, and Truth?

In the Craven Lounge, the same room in which the conference had begun the preceding day, Erin Cline of Belmont University presented “Incommensurability, Normative Vices, and the Comparative Language Game: A Wittgensteinian Model for Comparative Philosophy.” Exhibiting an exceptional level of cognitive maturity as well as presentational poise, Erin analyzed various obstacles that plague comparative studies and placed Wittgenstein “in conversation with other key thinkers on the subject of different worldviews,” including Alasdair MacIntyre, Donald Davidson, and Martha Nussbaum. She was followed by Katherine Collins of the University of Massachusetts with an enlightening assessment of “The Environmental Crisis Through a Buddhist Perspective.”

In the adjacent room, Jayson White of Iowa State University talked about “Religious and Non-Religious Language, and Propositions About Human Rights.” Justin Maaia of Suffolk University secured his place in the annals of conference history by becoming the first student to begin a presentation with a sax solo. Justin’s paper, which is included in this volume on pages 145-171, is titled “The Experience and Expression of Truth.”

With student presentations at a close all that remained was to grab one last cup of coffee and settle in for a rare treat: the concluding keynote presentation by Henry Rosemont, Jr. of St. Mary’s College of Maryland. In “Whose Democracy? Which Rights?” Professor Rosemont systematically dissected a broad range of western values, modern philosophy, and social and political theory. At best, he suggested, Modern Western Liberalism vouchsafes first generation rights but falters in its attempt to take the next step, to second generation rights. Arguing that concepts like human rights, liberty, and individualism fail to capture what it is to be a human being, he then urged a careful reconsideration of Classical Confucianism. According to a Confucian perspective, our most basic rights are not civil or political, grounded in the view that we are autonomous individuals, but rather natural consequences of our membership in a community, with each member assuming a measure of responsibility for the welfare of all other members. It was a thought-provoking and fitting conclusion to an exceptional conference where students had pondered concepts of ethics, rights, social and political structures, and the value of comparative philosophy.

A Brief History
The conference itself took slightly less than two days. In truth, those two days are but a tightly compressed node of emotional and intellectual exchange in a remarkable fabric, the threads of which extend in untold directions in both space and time. In an important if somewhat simplistic sense, our conference began during the fall of 1995 when I invited a few students to tag along with me to a conference on Greek and Islamic Philosophy. They came back with a dream about holding a conference of their own, not for professors such as they had seen, but for undergraduates such as themselves. When I found that I could not discourage them, I agreed to work with them. We hosted our first conference the following spring, in March 1996. Even now I look back in astonishment at the unflagging commitment of our students, the enthusiastic response we received, and the remarkable quality of the papers.

By encouraging excellence, and by treating students with respect and professionalism, we have been rewarded in kind. Over each of the past five years I have found a small cadre of students willing to work long hard hours to bring this dream of an undergraduate conference to fruition. We have played host to students from a wide range of institutions throughout the United States and Canada. Many of our conference alumni have now gone on to graduate school. They are, in a very real sense, the future of our profession. As several of our keynote speakers have confided to me over the years, we have spoiled them. Having experienced a conference such as this, they will never accept the posturing or the stiff and boring presentations that occupy centerstage at many professional meetings. My response is simple and to the point: “I hope they don’t.”

Seven of the twelve students whose papers are published in this volume received special awards, described below. The others, as will be obvious to anyone who reads the essays, made decisions concerning those awards especially difficult. Each paper represented an exceptional student’s best work. In most cases, it was the first time the student had presented a paper beyond the confines of a classroom. The inherent intimidation of presenting one's work in public, combined with the knowledge that it would be subject to critical blind review, resulted in a significant measure of self-selection. I know many capable students who elected not to submit. But for those who summoned the courage, the experience was remarkable.

President's Awards
President's Awards honor student presentations that most clearly exemplify the standards and ideals of the conference. For 2000, these awards were presented to (alphabetic order):

Erin Cline (Belmont University)
Malinda Foster (University of Michigan)
Rachel Houchins (East Tennessee State University)
Michael Alan Payne (Virginia Commonwealth University)

Ninash Foundation East-West Awards
East-West Awards honor student presentations that exhibit special expertise and insight in Asian and Comparative Philosophy. For 2000, the award was presented to:

Justin Maaia (Suffolk University)

To honor her role as student committee chair, especially her success in facilitating scholarly exchange concerning Asian and Comparative Philosophy, a second East-West Award was presented to:

Cynthia Budka (SUNY Oneonta)

Spirit of Conference Awards
Spirit of Conference Awards honor students who contribute to the conference in diverse, sometimes unexpected ways. Special consideration is given to contributions that enhance the academic, intellectual, and positive social atmosphere of the conference. For 2000, these awards were presented to (alphabetic order):

Iain Tucker Brown (St. Mary's College)
Gottlieb Jicha III (SUNY Oneonta)
John Kaag (Pennsylvania State University)

In my preface to Children of Athena (proceedings of the 1998 conference), I wrote about a student who was busy in another office, creating the program for our fourth annual conference. That he was doing so on his spring break, I noted, only serves to reinforce my conviction that somewhere, somehow, we must have done something right. That student, Gotti Jicha, was a member of a fraternity as well as the Rugby Club. To put it bluntly, he had a reputation for having a good time. When Gotti again devoted his spring break to work on the conference program the following (his senior) year, it only further served to increase my respect, admiration, and sense of wonder. By the time the conference arrived he had read and reread each and every paper. During the conference, he seemed to be everywhere at once: picking up students from the airport, making sure arrangements were just right, chatting with people about their presentations, and participating vigorously in the open discussions. Along with John Kaag who infused the conference with a dose of refreshing honesty and realism, and Tucker Brown who also earned the right to author the Student Preface for this volume, Gotti is sure to become a classic example of the enthusiasm and “beyond the call of duty” activity that merits a Spirit of Conference Award.

Proceedings and Acknowledgments
The proceedings are a natural extension of the conference. Accordingly, I try to approach the task of editing through the same lenses that I use for planning the conference. I ask myself repeatedly, “How can I help my students see beyond the inherent agonies and frustrations of the process by which a private opinion becomes a public position, to revel in the excitement and satisfaction of that process as well?” The result is a true labor of love. On the one hand, it always demands far more time and attention to detail than I have allotted. On the other hand, the students with whom I have worked—from other institutions as well as from SUNY Oneonta—have been sources of joy, inspiration, and delight.

For the proceedings of the fourth conference (The Fractal Self), I tried to teach students how to format papers using WORD. The idea seemed simple enough: we would combine content review with formatting. In practice, the students had so much trouble with WORD that there was barely any time left for serious discussion of the content. Thus, for the present volume, I modified the approach. Three of the four students who volunteered to help with the editorial process had not been able to attend the conference. For them, this would be the first and primary encounter with these essays. Cindy Budka, who generously agreed to serve as conference committee chair for the second straight year, also agreed to provide preliminary formatting for many of the papers. That left other students free to focus on content. We met weekly, often in a comfortable coffee shop, to talk about the papers. I found myself giving impromptu lectures on everything from Heidegger to Feminism. By the end of the fall semester, we had page proofs ready to send to our authors.

A formal list of acknowledgments follows the student preface. Still, I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to thank my family (Barbara, Callie, and Sterling) for their patience, encouragement, and support. I also owe a special note of appreciation to Ashok Malhotra, Joanna Crosby, and Henry Rosemont, Jr. for gracing our conference with their presence, their insights, and their infectious enthusiasm. I am especially grateful to Joanna and Henry for allowing us the honor of including their presentations in the proceedings.

Without the assistance of faculty, staff, and administrators here at Oneonta, neither the conference nor this volume would be possible: thank you. Finally, I owe a note of gratitude to the students who provided editorial assistance for this volume: Cynthia Budka, Jason Ohliger, Elizabeth Verry, and Ann Williamson.

Douglas W. Shrader
Oneonta, New York



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