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Dean’s Lecture Series

2016-17 Academic Year: Spring Semester

Lectures are free and open to the public and are followed by a question-and-answer period.

Recordings and transcripts of lectures are available on the SJC Digital Archives site.

Lecture by Michael Mukasey

Friday, January 27, 7:30 p.m., The Great Hall

Michael B. Mukasey served as the 81st Attorney General of the United States, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, from November 2007 to January 2009. During that time, he oversaw the U.S. Justice Department and advised on critical issues of domestic and international law. From 1988 to 2006, he served as a district judge in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, becoming chief judge in 2000. While on the bench, he handled numerous cases, including the trial of Omar Abdel Rahman, the so-called “blind sheikh,” and others, convicted of a wide-ranging conspiracy that included the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and a later plot to blow up New York landmarks; and the case of Jose Padilla, arrested on a material witness warrant and believed to have returned to the United States to commit terrorist acts. Judge Mukasey is currently in private practice in New York City.

"Aristophanes' Birds: A City Without Gods"

Michael Grenke, St. John’s College

Friday, February 3, 7:30 p.m., The Great Hall

In Aristophanes’ Birds two Athenians run away from Athens in search of a better city. This search evolves into a search for the best city. The search evolves from there into a project to build a best city. And the motives that drive this search lead to the creation of a city that makes war upon the gods and that tries to take the place of the gods with respect to other cities. The text raises, both explicitly and implicitly, questions about what human beings want, or want most, from the gods, and it also considers by what means or through what measures such wants can be addresses by purely human power.

This lecture is part of the Carol J. Worrell Annual Lecture Series on Literature.

"Kant's Grounding of a Dual Metaphysics"

James Carey, St. John’s College

Wednesday, February 8, 3:15 p.m., The Junior Common Room

Metaphysics was traditionally understood to be knowledge of being, of things as they are essentially, or “in-themselves,” and of their ultimate foundation. In the Critique of Pure Reason Kant attempts to demonstrate that metaphysics, so-conceived, transcends the limits of experience and human reason. But the very argument Kant advances in support of this negative conclusion enables him to reinterpret and ground metaphysics as knowledge of the rational principles of natural science and morality. In my talk I shall sketch Kant’s argument and assess its chief presuppositions. My hope is that the talk will be of particular interest to those who are reading, or soon will be reading, Kant for the first time. No prior knowledge of Kant will be assumed.


Friday, February 17 – Saturday, February 18

Friday, February 17

2:30 p.m.: Owen Gingerich workshop. Great Hall.

7:30 p.m.: Bill Donahue lecture: “A Page of Kepler,” preceded by presentation of Kepler Essay Prize. Great Hall.

Saturday, February 18

10:30 a.m.: Peter Pesic talk, small chorus performance led by Andy Kingston. Great Hall.

2:00 p.m.: Owen Gingerich lecture: “Kepler’s Elusive Eccentricity.” Great Hall.

Book signing before talk and after question period. Rear of Great Hall.

7:30 p.m.: Musica Antigua de Albuquerque concert of music related to Kepler or from that period. Great Hall

Friday evening through Saturday evening: Exhibit of Kepler-related images. Great Hall

Owen Gingerich is an emeritus professor of astronomy and the history of science at Harvard University and an emeritus senior astronomer at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. He is a leading authority on the 16th-century Polish cosmologist Nicholas Copernicus and the 17th-century German astronomer Johannes Kepler.

He spent three decades tracking down and examining surviving copies of Copernicus’ seminal work, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, in which Copernicus first proposed that the Earth is not fixed but revolves around the sun. Owen wanted to determine who owned these copies, what marginal notes they made while reading the book, and what they thought of Copernicus’ then-radical idea. In his quest, Owen traveled to libraries throughout North America, Europe, China, Japan, and Australia, and he chronicles these adventures in The Book Nobody Read.

Owen has been vice president of the American Philosophical Society—America’s oldest scientific academy—and he has served as chairman of the U.S. National Committee of the International Astronomical Union. He collects rare astronomical books, especially ephemerides (books that give the day-to-day positions of astronomical objects), and an asteroid—“2658 Gingerich”—has been named in his honor.

Long interested in the science-religion dialogue, Owen gave the 2005 William Belden Noble Lecture at Harvard’s Memorial Church (published as God’s Universe) and he has served as a trustee of the John Templeton Foundation.

"On the ironies of ecological restoration in North America and the Galápagos"

Llyd Wells, St. John’s College

Friday, March 3, 7:30 p.m., The Great Hall

The sciences need the liberal arts. I shall endeavor to demonstrate why, in particular through careful case studies of two related projects in the field of conservation biology. The first calls for rewilding North America by introducing charismatic megafauna, including elephants, lions and cheetahs, whose North American ancestors arguably were driven extinct by human beings during the Pleistocene (~13,000 years ago). The second, undertaken by some of the same scientists, attempts to rid the Galápagos archipelago of human-introduced organisms, including megafauna, in part to preserve these islands’ iconic status as a laboratory of evolution. Both projects are explicitly justified according to ecological, evolutionary, aesthetic, ethical and economic criteria. I hope to show that all of these justifications, however, including the scientific ones, remain grounded in an unexamined humanism whose metaphysical roots can be traced to Descartes and transcendental monotheism. The failure to examine the metaphysical project underlying these conservation programs, I argue, is decidedly illiberal and has serious implications and consequences to which we cannot responsibly – that is to say, liberally – be blind.

"The Metaphysical Animal: Kant's Neglected Third Question"

Raoni Padui, St. John’s College

Wednesday, March 29, 3:15 p.m., The Junior Common Room

Kant begins his Critique of Pure Reason by breaking up the general problem of pure reason into four main questions: “How is pure mathematics possible?” “How is pure science of nature possible?” “How is metaphysics, as a natural disposition, possible?” and “How is metaphysics, as science, possible?” The first, second, and fourth questions are given a great deal of attention throughout the book, and it may seem as if the third question is neither central nor important to Kant’s project. In this paper I will argue that this neglected question, regarding to what extent human beings have a natural drive for metaphysical concerns, is perhaps Kant’s greatest contribution to philosophy. I hope to show the way in which the word “natural” which modifies our disposition for the metaphysical can be neither an empirical or scientific notion of the natural, nor itself a metaphysical concept, but something else entirely.

"Are wasps figs? Are figs wasps? An Aristotelian conundrum"

Stephen Houser, St. John’s College

Friday, March 31, 7:30 p.m., The Great Hall

"The Precautionary Principle" -canceled

Jay Smith, St. John’s College

Friday, April 7, 7:30 p.m., The Great Hall

In chapter 1 of Hans Jonas’ “Imperative of Responsibility”, the altered nature of human action is examined. Given its technological enhancement and the increasing time frame and scope of its repercussions on both humanity and our planet, the question arises whether traditional ethical principles can provide sufficient guidance for such altered actions. Jonas answers in the negative, giving rise to the discussion of a precautionary principle. This principle will look beyond what Jonas labels a neighborhood ethics and in recognition of the high stakes involved will adopt a preservative and conservation stance. This lecture will examine the grounds of such an ethical principle as well as the obstacles, both political and ethical, to its adoption.

"Emptying the Deep Sadness of Existence: Laughter in Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling"​

Amanda Printz, Oglethorpe University

Friday, April 21, 7:30 p.m., The Great Hall

The pseudonymous writer of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Johannes de Silentio, is annihilated, horrified, appalled, amazed, and frightened in his attempt to encounter and to understand Abraham’s life—Abraham’s attitude towards existence as a whole. And yet, from Johannes de Silentio we get no song of sorrow or lament, no weeping, no poetic screams, no hymn of praise, not even an account—he offers only absolute silence…so he claims. But what is the silence he offers? What sort of silence emerges in horror and annihilation but embodies no understanding and emits no account? In this lecture, I will explore the idea that Johannes’ noisy silence is an authentic response to Abraham’s attitude towards existence as a whole---his being in the world as, primarily, a laugher. For Johannes, what distinguishes Abraham as a knight of faith, a life to be approached simply with “religious horror”, is not his renouncing of Isaac, the object more beloved by Abraham than any other, but his receiving Isaac back. What does Abraham receive back? Laughter. The Hebrew word Isaac means laughter and so, that which Abraham receives back, that which distinguishes him among human lives, that which characterizes his being in the world, and that which is the terminal gesture of his “emptying the deep sadness of existence in infinite resignation” is laughter. In an effort, then, to understand Johannes’ silence, the starting point—and bulk of my lecture—will be an exploration of Abraham’s laughter and an attempt to encounter Abraham as the knight of laughter.

"Wittgenstein Changes His Mind"

Cora Diamond, University of Virginia, Department of Philosophy

Friday, April 28, 7:30 p.m., The Great Hall

I set out three central elements in Wittgenstein’s thought, and show how they led to tensions in his first great work, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. I then look at his later diagnosis of what had gone wrong. I try to show connections between his later philosophy and the change in the way he understood his alienation from twentieth century civilization.

Cora Diamond is an American philosopher who works on Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gottlob Frege, moral philosophy, political philosophy, philosophy of language, and philosophy and literature. She is the Kenan Professor of Philosophy Emerita at the University of Virginia.

"What Can You Do with Classical Chinese Poetry?"

Graham Sanders, University of Toronto, Department of Asian Studies

Annual Rohrbach Lecture

Friday, May 5, 7:30 p.m., The Great Hall

This lecture will be an exploration of the role Chinese poetry has played as a powerful form of social discourse for thousands of years in China, and what we might learn from it today.

I am fascinated with the portrayal in narrative of the composition, performance and reception of poetry in pre-modern China as a way of enriching our understanding of how poetic practice was envisioned in the Chinese tradition. In my research, I range from the pre-Qin through the Tang dynasties and I am currently working on a multi-year project on the poetry and life of a Tang poet named Meng Jiao 孟郊 (751-814), which will result in a website devoted to his work. I also enjoy translation and have published a new edition of Shen Fu’s 沈復 (b. 1763) Six Records of a Life Adrift 浮生六記 (2011). I am currently working on a combined translation project of the two most important Tang dynasty collections of anecdotes on poetry: Friendly Conversations at Misty Brook 雲谿友議, compiled by Fan Shu 范攄 (fl. 877); and Storied Poems 本事詩, compiled by Meng Qi 孟啟 (fl. 841-886). These bilingual translations have been commissioned by De Gruyter to be part of their forthcoming twenty-volume Library of Chinese Humanities. I teach classical Chinese language, and literature survey courses from the pre-Qin through the Qing eras at the undergraduate level, and more specialized courses in pre-Tang and Tang literature at the graduate level.