Clinical Assistant Professor of Liberal Studies; CAS Honors Program
Ph.D. Johns Hopkins University- History
Areas of Interest: History of Political and Legal Thought
Course(s) Taught: Social Foundations I-II (Liberal Studies); Conversations of the West (CAS, MAP); Hobbes and Galileo (Freshman Honors Seminar, CAS); Reconstructing Global Violence (Advanced Honors Seminar, CAS); Truth and Sedition (Freshman Honors Seminar, CAS); Love and Violence (Advanced Honors Seminar, CAS)
- Fulbright Scholar, Cambridge University.
I try to encourage questioning, and pushing past the comfortable truths, while trying to let people feel somewhat comfortable in what can be a distressing situation.
Some sample questions: What is “liberal” about liberal studies. Has it become useful now mainly because our minds tend to go blank when we hear it, and if so how does it, as an empty signifier, function in the larger university system? How is the term marketed? Despite its predominate emptiness, is it called on to evoke shades of its former meanings, going back to antiquity, or does it by default take on meanings assigned to it by modern adherents of liberalism or by hostile outside forces? What would conservative studies be? Could liberal studies be radical? Is NYU liberal? What are the various schemes that have connected liberalism and justice, and what could any of that have to do with liberal studies? Is there a customary menu of hidden agendas behind the normal use of the word “liberal;” that is, should one sometimes assume “tight-fisted” or “slavishly devoted to power?” What about the “slaves,” those for whom the liberal world has always been a closed book?
The other side of what tends to involve negativity and skepticism in this form of inquiry is a release from inherited patterns of thought, which could itself be tied to liberalism in its ideal form: through free discussion, unhampered by censoring authorities, can we liberate ourselves from dogma and enter a progressive space? By educating ourselves, no matter how apparently enslaved we are (by the fear of unemployment, by student loans, by parental expectations, by an overbearing superego) can we at least hope to free some part of our minds from the various forms of tyranny?
Maybe, but how can a joint reading of required (and old) texts in a required class produce anything but further enslavement and alienation? Is the teacher (me) not a censoring authority?
This last is a question I have a lot of trouble with. I think one answer here has to do with the books we tend to read. Nearly all of them emerged out of the struggle to escape a dominating system, and many were published illegally or banned. I encourage rebellious thinking—especially with respect to my own positions and interpretations—as long as it is rigorous, but I acknowledge that the institutional framework, with its insistence on final evaluations, poses a basic challenge. A lame defense presents itself: without the pressure of deadlines, when would we read and write about these difficult classics and hear what other people think about them?
Word, Concept, Translation.
As in the case of “liberal,” words change meaning as readily as the constituents of speaking communities change their outlooks, functions and aspirations. Basic concepts, however named, change as well, sometimes dramatically. Principles referenced by people in organizing themselves, resting as they do on basic concepts, undergo transformations as well. While there may be foundational organizing principles, like the golden rule, which are referenced in many languages and cultures, their actual use in a text can be just as problematic for them as “liberal” is for us. So in reading a modern translation of an ancient Greek or Chinese text, we often find ourselves at sea, desperately looking for ways to simplify an inherently complex situation. I think the idea here is to open things up rather than shut them down, be aware that it can be hard to communicate with your next-door neighbor, let alone with a seminal and disruptive thinker from long ago.
Why do this?
I’m not at all sure, to tell the truth. I remember an early crisis in college, when suddenly Dante seemed to mean something to me in a way that nothing that I was studying as a physics major did. Even though at the time I had little background in literature, history, philosophy or language, I felt strongly enough about this to abandon science and all the training our Sputnik era schools had given me, and to declare myself a major in history and philosophy (later to become an Independent Studies Major involving the work of Paul Ricoeur). I can now see this as an act of immaturity, of course. I think I was enthralled by the idea that the little cosmos of Dante meant so much to him, without at first realizing that no cosmos would ever mean so much to me, except as a basically horrifying reminder of my insignificance. But at least my studies have in some measure explained that absence, which in turn perhaps does mean something in our world of systematic subjective and objective conflict. So far I think my studies in the humanities have suggested negative conclusions: in the absence of the sort of certainty and agreement achievable in science, a vigilant skepticism regarding truth claims in the humanities is called for, since these often mask strategic shifts in power alignments, and function as potential elements of arguments justifying new forms of violence, whether consciously directed by a sovereign agency or not.
On the historical development of all of this, I tend to follow the late work of Foucault. But the question of what is to be done, how one intervenes, is more difficult, and I am not happy about my inactivity at the moment. In a former life I was closely involved in a community-based green movement, but in New York it is hard to feel that supporting, for instance, bike paths and organic agriculture, which I do, has much to do with the way the city functions. Such a huge organism with a multitude of functions in the world presents an obstacle to coherent critical action. I am tempted by the Marxist cynicism of Zizek regarding merely palliative work if it just acts to disguise the real problems. But while our representative system is not perfect, and has been made worse by the Supreme Court’s recent decision regarding the role of corporations in financing campaigns, in my mind free discourse in the public sphere, with a legislature as the official forum, whether local, national or global, is the sine qua non of public solutions. Only where this process is hopelessly corrupt (as it is in many places), can revolutionary violence be endorsed (as I think Zizek would agree). If our work together on the discursive crises of the past prepares us in some measure to effectively participate in this difficult space, perhaps we are starting to answer the question “why do this?”.
One should not assume that the main point of any discourse (including this one) is ever actually explicit. Either the writer or speaker is aware of the point and is trying to disguise it for all but those on the inside track, in ways that Leo Strauss was energetic in investigating, or she is not herself aware of it, in ways of course that Freudians have tried to uncover. Clearly, if we are going to allow the possibility that every text contains a certain amount of this dark matter, we must allow ourselves room to explore it, even if we can’t prove whether our interpretations are right or wrong. In fact, I believe, along with Thomas Nagel, that even when the writer is trying to express conscious thoughts straightforwardly, she will often find the language inadequate to her purposes. This means again that we must allow ourselves to lift up the carpet of language and try to see what’s underneath. It’s not all on the surface of the language game, as many contend. So Marxist, Straussian, psychoanalytic and Nagelian approaches are fine by me.
- “Una prospettiva naïve su I choide di Franca da parte di un ex carpentiere/A Naïve Appreciation of Franca’s Nails, by a former carpenter,” in Ghitti, La grammatical dei chiodi/ The Grammar of Nails: tesi di A. Carrera, M.L. Ardizzone, W. Klein, F. Lorenzi, OK Harris Works of Art, New York, 2010.
- “Machiavelli, Thucydides and the Anglo-American Tradition,” in Patricia Vilches and Gerald Seaman, eds. Seeking real truths: multidisciplinary perspectives on Machiavelli, Leiden; Boston, Brill, 2007.
- “The Ancient Constitution Revisited,” in Nicholas Phillipson and Quentin Skinner, eds., Political Discourse in Early Modern Britain, Cambridge University Press, 1993.
- “Parliament, Liberty and the Continent: The Perception,” Parliamentary History, October, 1987.
- James Tully, An Approach to Political Philosophy: Locke in Contexts, Cambridge, 1993, in Journal of the History of Philosophy, 33:2 April 1995, 345-6.
- Gian Carlo Garfagnini, ed. Lorenzo de’ Medici Studi, Florence, 1992, in Sixteenth Century Journal XXIV/2 (1993), 508-510.
- Leslie Walker’s translation of The Discourses of Nicolò Machiavelli, 1975 ed., in Sixteenth Century Journal XXIII no.4 (1992), 838-9.
- Donald A. Beecher and Massimo Ciavolella, tr., A Treatise on Lovesickness, 1990, in Journal of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association, 12 (1992), 142-3.
- The Lure of the Italian Treasure, Pocket Books, 1999. This is a Hardy Boys mystery, ghostwritten under the name of Franklin W. Dixon.
- Stress Point, Pocket Books, 1997. (as Franklin Dixon).
- Campaign of Crime, Pocket Books, 1995. (as Franklin Dixon).