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Words from the Chair

Utopian Projects – some thoughts on the importance of philosophy and religious studies in times like these

I have long thought of philosophy as a utopian project.  That it is, and always will be a project, captures the ongoing and always unfinished nature of philosophy.  There may not be eternal and universal human questions (although I am inclined to think there might be some), but the matter of asking questions, of querying our own existence, nonetheless continues.  But “utopian?”  And, is a utopian project a good thing?  Utopia, as a project and an idea, has fallen on hard times, connected as it is with failed socio-political-cultural-aesthetic projects of 20th Century.

Certainly the efforts, characteristic of philosophy, to understand such notions as truth, beauty, and goodness might be understood as utopian, both in the laudatory sense of utopian when people grapple with fundamental concepts and strive to increase understanding; and in the negative sense when people take their understanding of these concepts dogmatically and impose it (sometimes violently) on others. Religion also partakes of this two-pronged sense of utopia, in the positive longing for a better world and negatively in the imposition of particular dogmas, beliefs, and values on others.

There are two other ways in which philosophy is utopian, and these I think less problematic – in fact, these can help us distinguish the positive and negative uses of the search for truth (and beauty, and goodness, etc.).  Philosophy is utopian in method (or, in at least one of its methods) and in foundational assumptions.  Consider one of our ur-figures, Socrates.  While we can take Socrates and his practice as ironic and sometimes quite biting in his questions, we can also focus on the fact of questioning, the continued belief that asking questions is worthy because people might thereby learn.  I find in the Socratic dialogues the hopes that although we are all-too-easily given to ignorance and pomposity, we are also capable of learning, changing, humility and movement toward a better situation, or knowing more, of better understanding of self and other, and of living more fully.  And, this movement takes place, and is catalyzed, by dialogue.  It is not solipsistic reflection, although self-knowledge and a vital inner life are part of the process, nor is it debate for the sake of winning or activity for self-enrichment, but dialogue that opens the possibility to a better situation.  Dialogue is the utopian method at the heart of philosophy, opening participants to the possibilities of crafting new situations as individuals and communities, situations that result from greater understanding- or, in old- fashioned terms, in movement toward truth and beauty and goodness.

Religious studies is similarly utopian, starting with the notion that it is possible (and desirable) to examine one’s own religious beliefs and to enter into dialogue across religious differences, with a goal of fostering greater understanding.

This emphasis on dialogue, on speaking clearly, on careful and attentive listening, on holding each other accountable, on openness to growth and change, on active critical engagement with context and other, and on self-critique and intellectual humility has always been an outlier practice, one subject to sanctions (Hypatia’s murder, Socrates’ death, Galileo’s trial, Spinoza’s excommunication, ML King, Jr’s assassination, and countless others).  And, we live in times when thoughtfulness risks being lost in the noise and flash of instant communication, when change can be seen as a weakness, and when aggressive and violent responses to ideas we do not like are thought appropriate.  At a time when a quest for increased understanding is made more likely by certain structural conditions it is actively resisted by others.  Times like these call for the dialogue we practice and encourage in our students. We are fortunate to have some part in an academic department that places dialogue at the center of it’s practice and curriculum, and to be associated with a university that not only values and supports dialogue, but increasingly makes it a point of pride.   Continuing the dialogue is a utopian act, orienting us to the possibility that we might play some role in healing the world.  

Dr. Craig Hanks, Professor and Chair