Philip Kitcher

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Professor Kitcher will give 3 lectures: October 2, 4 and 6. All will take place in the Teleconference RM 403 of Alexander Library from 4:30 - 6:30pm. 

Philip Kitcher is John Dewey Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Columbia University. He is the author of numerous books and articles on a wide range of topics, from the philosophy of science (particularly biology and mathematics) to ethics, political philosophy, philosophy of education, and pragmatism. He is also co-author (with Richard Schacht) of a volume on Wagner’s Ring, as well as the sole author of books on Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and Mann’s Death in Venice. Kitcher was awarded the Prometheus Prize by the American Philosophical Association. He has received the Rescher Medal for work in systematic philosophy, and the Hempel Award for lifetime achievement in the Philosophy of Science. Kitcher is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, and a member of the American Philosophical Society.

Lecture One: A Merchant and a Gentleman: Ethical Change & Social Friction 

Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is full of oppositions. I read it in terms of a struggle between insiders and outsiders. The insiders, typified by Antonio and the “Magnificoes” who support him, adopt an approach to morality that demands intense sympathetic responses towards the members of their circle. Outsiders, paradigmatically Shylock, find this morality oppressive – sympathy never extends towards them – and they insist on public rules that must be rigidly applied. Some people, like Portia, are partial outsiders, well served by the gentlemanly code within some domains, and excluded from privileged positions in others. As I interpret it, the play reveals the inadequacy of both ethical approaches. It is full of people behaving badly. In exposing how the actions of the characters are affected by social friction – generated when an evolving commercial society contains two conflicting approaches to ethical life – the play both points towards a more adequate view of moral conduct and offers a diagnostic tool for our own social condition.

Lecture Two: Emma and Anna and Effi: Stifled Lives

Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Effi Briest are three of the “fallen women’ of nineteenth century fiction. The obvious ethical implications of the depictions of them by Flaubert, Tolstoy, and Fontane have already been absorbed: few people today would demand harsh penalties for their infidelities. This lecture will not be concerned with the reactions to their behavior, but with what leads them to enter their marriages and then to desperate efforts to escape them. The problem does not lie simply in the limited choices for women in their social milieux, but in the social mismatch between the patterns prescribed for their lives and the forms of education and development to which they are subjected. Although their decisions appear to be free, they enjoy a very low degree of “the only freedom” John Stuart Mill thought “worthy of the name”: the ability to choose your own good in your own way. These novels show how the three women and some of the men with whom they engage are deprived of freedom by social conditions that constrain them and silence them. In doing so, they invite our reflections on similar phenomena in the world today, and pose issues about the possible contemporary destruction of the conditions for ethical life.

Lecture Three: To See into the Life of Things: Wordsworth, Emerson and the Religious Impulse

In the 1790s, Coleridge encouraged his friend Wordsworth to write a “philosophic poem.” That work – The Recluse – was never completed, but Coleridge eventually offered the same accolade to Wordsworth’s Prelude. My discussion explores Wordsworth’s approach to the moral agent, as it develops from Tintern Abbey and the Immortality Ode to the Prelude and the fragments of The Recluse he did succeed in writing. Wordsworth combined a metaphysical constructivism with an account of ethical decision-making that features a complex psychological capacity, one in which sympathetic imagination and reflective reasoning both play important roles. The development of that capacity starts from childhood impulses, which are enlarged as the search for harmony in nature is extended to the human realm. That development is, Wordsworth believes, easily subverted, and his self-ascribed task is to foster the emergence of the crucial capacity in others. The direct way of doing this would be to convey to his readers the contents of what he took to be exceptionally significant experiences – and The Recluse was apparently dedicated to delivering that. But, finding that approach blocked, he modified the pedagogical strategy by explaining the growth of his own mind. The Prelude can be read as offering a series of “spiritual exercises” for the aspiring moral agent.

Throughout his career (ever more frequently as he grew older), Wordsworth couched his poetic enterprise using language with religious overtones. As I reconstruct his position, the religious overtones are disconnected from the doctrines of any particular religion, and the religious impulse is, for him, the aspiration to develop moral agency. I close by focusing on the kinship between his perspective on morality and religion and that adopted by Emerson. Their shared position offers a salutary alternative to the debased versions of religion and of scientism so widespread in our times.