Philosophy Newsletter

Dear Alumni and Friends,

Department Chair Elaine Miller2018-19 promises to be a year of change for the Philosophy Department. Emily Zakin stepped down as Chair, and I have begun my first year as her replacement. In Spring 2019 Gaile Pohlhaus will take the place of Pascal Massie as Director of Graduate Studies and Chris King will take over from Keith Fennen as Chief Departmental Advisor.

Despite the changes, we remain consistent and focused in our mission as a pluralistic philosophy department. One exercise in changing while remaining true to our mission was enacted this summer when Keith Fennen, Gaile Pohlhaus, and I participated in the Howe Center for Writing Excellence Faculty Writing Fellows program. We spent two weeks intensely focusing on the threshold concepts of the discipline of philosophy, concepts that every student of philosophy must learn, but which are gained primarily through engaging in the work of philosophy rather than through a definition. Threshold concepts, which emerged from a UK national research project into strong teaching and learning environment, are concepts common to a discipline that are transformative because they involve an ontological as well as a conceptual shift, and integrative in that they expose the interrelatedness of phenomena specific to the discipline. The threshold concepts and disciplinary writing guide that we came up with can be seen on the Howe Center for Writing Excellence website. Also check out the writing spotlight on Philosophy.

Some of the “threshold concepts” we identified as central to being able to do work in Philosophy include:

  • Distinguishing between conceptual and the empirical investigation
  • Making conceptual distinctions and connections
  • Allowing texts to speak to us and immerse us in ideas that we did not initially understand or appreciate
  • Understanding the historical context of ideas

We aim to make familiarizing majors with these threshold concepts and deepening their understanding of them a repeated part of their study over four years. To this end, faculty met in a series of three pedagogy workshops throughout the Fall 2018 semester to reflect about best teaching and assignment creation practices, as well as to consider our curricular offerings in relation to meeting our goals.

This year also proved to be one of much international travel for our faculty, as we were invited or applied to international conferences and workshops worldwide, continuing to spread Miami's name as a center for continental philosophy, feminist philosophy, and ethics. Faculty traveled to conferences or consulting work in Austria, Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, and Spain.

In addition, Philosophy is again central to the Altman program. Emily Zakin co-leads this year's program on "Truth and Lies,” an extremely timely topic in the age of allegations of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” which have, as the fellows state, “unsettled the sense of a shared reality that seems essential to democracy.” Faculty, students, alumni and the broader public participate in this yearlong inquiry into the importance of respecting divergent rules of communication while also resisting deception. Visiting speakers to date have included journalist Masha Gessen and artist Trevor Paglen.

The department is also spearheading an effort to track the professions in which our majors end up making their careers. The sheer variety is notable: we have alumni who are lawyers, doctors, editors in publishing houses, business executives, and teachers. Every year we bring back alumni to talk about how their educational grounding in Philosophy has affected their success in their chosen career. We welcome any self-nominations to participate in this annual "Career Pathways" event."

Finally, we hope to increase scholarship and independent research opportunities for our majors this year. As always, we would welcome your financial support, no matter how small, specifically with the goal of funding students for whom college tuition is a burden and in preparing philosophy majors for careers in the world beyond academia.

Elaine Miller
Chair

Truth and Lies

This year 3 members of the philosophy department are involved with humanities center altman program: Dr. Emily Zakin is an Altman Faculty Fellow, Dr. Gaile Pohlhaus is an Altman Faculty Scholar and Ricky de Santis is an Altman Graduate Fellow. Student participants work together in an interdisciplinary community that includes distinguished lectures, collaborative research, programs, and seminar classes.

For the 2018-19 academic year, the annual theme is “Truth and Lies.” This theme was proposed by Emily Zakin and Theresa Kulbaga, Associate Professor English, and they are together responsible for leading the faculty seminar, co-teaching the undergraduate course, and planning events. Zakin and Kulbaga believe that now is a crucial time for the humanities to reflect on questions of truth, deception, and misrepresentation, and to rethink how and why concepts of truth matter in both the expression of self and the preservation of shared political life.

Our contemporary world is preoccupied with questions of truth, deception, and misrepresentation. Our sense of a shared reality—seemingly a keystone of democracy and intellectual exchange—has been frayed by allegations of “fake news,” “alternative facts,” lies, and disinformation. Meanwhile, a robust culture of the self (as seen in memoir, personal essay, documentary film, and social media) suggests a subjective turn in our understanding of truth. How can we acknowledge the public value of multiple perspectives and experiences while also combating lies, spin, and political manipulation?

The 2018-19 Altman Program invites faculty, students, alumni, and the public to join a yearlong, multidisciplinary exploration of truth-telling and the public sphere. What is truth, and how do we know it? Who is recognized and legitimated as a truth-teller? What is the relation between truth and democracy? To what extent do differing conceptions of truth tear at the fabric of a shared social reality – or make it stronger? These questions have troubled democracy from its origins, but they have renewed salience amidst the current dilemmas of public knowledge.

The Altman undergraduate seminar course, taught by Drs. Kulbaga and Zakin in the Fall of 2018 was titled “Truth and Lies: Telling the Truth and Why It Matters” and it invited students to read widely in theories of truth and truth-telling (including its meaning, value, and possibility), to consider the craft and rhetoric of truth in truth-telling genres such as autobiography, memoir, creative journalism, and documentary film, and to develop a critical conception of the role(s) of truth and lies in contemporary society. The course asked students to explore questions such as:

  • What is the value of a truth claim?
  • Who is presumed to have or speak the truth and who isn’t?
  • How do we relate to ourselves and others through the prism of truth and lies?
  • What is the relation between truth and democracy?

Readings included works of philosophy, cultural studies, and creative nonfiction.

Journalist Masha Gessen on America’s Post-truth Society

Written by Remi Boleky, CAS communications intern

Masha GessenMembers of the Philosophy department – both faculty and students -- regularly participate in the Altman Fellows Program. This year, Masha Gessen, a journalist, author of nine books, and visiting professor at Amherst College, spoke to a packed lecture room of students, faculty and people of Oxford regarding what it means to live in America’s post-truth society.

Gessen spoke about the quest for truth and the problems posed for this quest by those who have real power – especially political power. How should those who subvert the truth or make it seem out of reach or unimportant be dealt with by the media and by the public?

The majority of her lecture revolved around the way that President Trump and Vladimir Putin have reconstructed the meaning of truth and language. “I think the optics I acquired from watching Putin,” Gessen reflected, "gave me an ability to see certain things Trump does.”

They both lie, she claims, in order to "assert authority over reality itself.”

The primary reason for their incessant need to say whatever they want comes from the idea that even if they blatantly lie, as they do endlessly Gessen reminded the audience, what are we – the people—going to do about it. Lying is an assertion of their authority and of our powerlessness. For instance, no matter what Trump says people engage with it. In doing so, he circulates misconceptions that have the ability to seep into people’s reality. So when Trump or Putin suddenly tell the truth it is fascinating and horrifying. It once again asserts power over others to remind the public that they can say whatever they want, whenever they want to. It gives a feeling of living in constant uncertainty.

Gessen reminded the audience that while the two leaders have striking similarities they also have differences in their demeanor and in how they sound. Trump’s expressions are often confusing and typically involve complaints and grievances. Putin, is more confident and backs up his statements with figures and numbers that are completely misrepresented. Yet, the effect on people is the same. The vacuity of their expressions gives people almost nothing to grab onto. Their audiences are left with a fuzzy state of confusion. This is one way of in which an autocratic asserts power.

According to Gessen, their speech can be even more obviously Orwellian. They both typically use an expression in contexts that are atypical – even ironic. For instance, Trump remarks incessantly that he is the target of a “witch hunt” democrats. Yet, as normally understood a witch hunt is perpetuated by someone who has power. Certainly, it was not the witches of Salem who tossed the Puritans into a lake to see whether or not they would float. Putin uses the word democracy to mean its opposite. “Using something to mean its opposite, always has to do with relationships of power,” Gessen said.

These violations of linguistic and expressive norms create a dangerous puzzle:
What do journalists do in a society run by leaders who do not feel the need to speak the truth?

What’s a Degree in Philosophy Worth? Two Graduating Seniors Respond

Student spotlights by Remi Boleky

Amanda Brennan

Amanda BrennanI'm currently a Geoffrion Fellow, which is part of the University's Altman program. Through this, I'm writing a paper about individual versus system ethical responsibility in the opioid crisis. Dr. Suzanne McCullagh is mentoring me, which is great. Right now I'm working through my reading list, but I'll start writing my paper next semester, and I'll present it at a conference in April.

I am totally the most thankful for the professors in this department. Everyone is really approachable and truly invested in their students learning. Dr. Elaine Miller is literally the reason I'm a philosophy major, and being a philosophy major opened so many doors to me. I'm pretty sure I got the fellowship I have now because of my research experience with Dr. Miller this summer. Also, the writing and research skills you learn from being a philosophy student are no joke. I was working for a telemedicine company this summer, and I applied for and won a $200,000 grant for the company, having no previous grant-writing experience. The CEO said he always likes to have people who are writers on his marketing team. I really can't stress how great the professors are, and how the skills you learn from taking philosophy classes are not only translatable to, but lucrative in the real world.

My other major is political science, and I have minors in French and creative writing. I really like doing writing and research, so I'm hoping to find a job that allows me to flex those skills after I graduate. My goal is to be doing political writing, like for a TV show, a column, a campaign, etc. Philosophy is obviously important in that because I will have to be able to engage with complex topics and communicate them effectively. I'm not really worried about everything working out, though. I figure if I can survive Kant, I can do anything!

Annie Lazarski

Annie LazarskiMy senior project is a Dean’s Scholar and Departmental Honors thesis on the ethics of food. I am exploring the individual’s connection with nature and relating it to Simone de Beauvoir’s “Ethics of Ambiguity.” In my research, I state that the concept of freedom outlined by Beauvoir in her ethics can be applied to food and nature as a whole. It is our ability to will ourselves that places the obligation on us to do so. This pertains to nature and food. Because we (humans) have the ability to take care of nature and to treat food ethically, we have the moral obligation to do so.

I enjoyed the discussions both in and out of the classroom the most. Professors and students take a great interest in the material and seem to make philosophy part of every second of their life. In other majors, I’ve noticed that the classroom is only where students care about their majors, but that isn’t true with Philosophy. It has taught me how to think and critically examine contemporary issues, which has been really beneficial.

I plan to work in environmentally focused business after graduation. After working in the field for a few years, I intend to go back to school for a graduate degree. I wouldn’t have arrived to this conclusion without studying Philosophy. It helped me organize my thoughts and look for commonalities in the way I think and the issues I concern myself with. I think life can be confusing for college students because we are thrown a lot of information that we don’t know what to do with. It’s much easier to work through these thoughts when using the philosophical framework. That has helped a lot with this process.

Interview with Visiting Professor Dr. Benjamin Rossi

Benjamin RossiHow did you become interested in philosophy?

“I became interested in philosophy in high school. In my AP European History class we read Hobbes and Locke and I realized the stuff I had been thinking about had previously been thought about by other people who were doing it a lot better than me.”

Where did you go for undergraduate school? For graduate school?

“I went to the University of Chicago for undergrad and majored in philosophy. During that time, I was interested in the French philosopher Foucault and did my BA thesis on his later work.

“I had became more interested in freedom and moral responsibility so I went to Notre Dame for graduate school. In grad school, I switched to working on metaethics which is about moral language, the nature of moral properties, the possibility of more knowledge and practical reasons for actions.”

What do you like most about undergraduate teaching?

“I learn alot for my students. I learn different ways to think about things. I would say that it is a norm that philosophy is a solitary pursuit, thinking alone, but it's actually a collective pursuit. There is this tradition of philosophy being a discussion and I think that discussing things with my students has opened my eyes to consider new things. I hope that I have also showed them new ways of thinking. I like to think of it as a mutually beneficial relationship.”

Why do you think philosophy is a good field of study for undergraduates?

“I think because of the intellectual virtues that it teaches you. The ability to precisely analyze and evaluate arguments, to read carefully and critically, to consider both sides of an issue, write clearly and precisely. I think that these skills can be translated to many pursuits, that they are all purpose skills. They can help you to be a better coworker, citizen, family member, they are useful in every area.I think that philosophy teaches you how to use reason which I think can help us solve many problems in our lives.”

What do you like about teaching at Miami University?

“I like that the students are more personable than other places. They are very interested in developing relationships with their teachers. I think this makes the interactions and discussions in the classroom better when you have that underlying sense of familiarity and trust with your professor.”

What are you working on now?

“Right now, I am working on a couple of papers on the nature and ethics of hypocrisy. The papers touch on what hypocrisy is, whether or not we should be hypocritical and the effect of hypocrisy on people.

“I am also looking at what we should do about public monuments that depicts subjects that perpetrated wrong against people. I think philosophy can inject reason in highly emotional arguments in our public life.”

Faculty Notes

Gaile Polhaus at the Juyongguan section of the Great Wall of China

Gaile Polhaus at the Juyongguan
section of the Great Wall of China

  • Dr. Facundo Alonso gave a paper during Summer 2018 entitled "Planning on a Prior Intention" at the Universität Wein.
  • Dr. Michael Hicks attended and gave a paper at an annual meeting of the Society for the Study of the History of Analytic Philosophy (SSHAP). The paper was on the relationship between Gottlob Frege and John Stuart Mill.
  • Dr. Pascal Massie attended the Collegium Phaenomenologicum in Citta di Castello (Italy). The Collegium is an annual philosophical colloquium that last about 3 weeks. Majors speakers from around the world are invited and the participants (mostly PhD candidates) are divided into smaller reading/discussion groups. Professor Massie lead one of these discussion groups. The topic this year was Aristotle, Physis, Psyche, Polis. Two graduate students (Ricky DeSantis and Steven Schultz) attended the colloquium as well. During the summer 2020, Professor Massie will be teaching at MUDEC (Luxembourg).
  • Dr. Elaine Miller gave a paper at on Western Sydney University (Australia) in November 2018 called "Hegel on Reflection and Reflective Judgement."
  • Dr. Suzanne McCullagh gave two papers at international conferences: “Compassion for Collectivity: Labour and the Production of Belonging” at the American Simone Weil Colloquy, Ottawa, ON, Canada and “Sympathy with the Earth: Ecological Reparations and Political Subjectivity” at the International Conference on Environmental Humanities Conference: Stories, Myths, and Arts to Envision a Change, Alcalá de Henares, Spain.
  • Dr. Gaile Polhaus presented a paper during Summer 2018 in Beijing, China, at the World Congress of Philosophy and to Canterbury, England and at the International Virginia Woolf Conference.
  • Dr. Emily Zakin gave a paper during Summer 2018 entitled "Un Self Writing: @SoSadToday and the Curation of Affect" to The International Auto/Biography Association at the Universidade Federal de Sao Joao del-Rei.

Alumni Notes

  • Kevin Doherty (M.A., 2017) - Kevin is currently attending Villanova University for his Ph.D. in Philosophy. His interests are mainly in Continental Philosophy.
  • Preston Carter (M.A., 2017) – Preston is currently attending Fordham University. He plans to pursue a Ph.D. in Philosophy. His interests are wide-ranging, but he has particular interests in Critical Theory.