On February 6, the MUN Philosophy Department will present its first Public Lecture of 2018. This semester’s set of lectures are part of a long line of monthly talks that have been ongoing in the Department for over 25 years. The Muse spoke to Ethan Lewis, President of the Philosophy Department’s Undergraduate Society, to get some information about the series and what’s in store for this semester.
- 1. Can you tell me a bit about the Lecture Series? When did it begin? How long have you been a part of its organization? Where are the lectures held and who can attend?
Of course! The Public Lecture Series (PLS) is a set of talks hosted by MUN Philosophy, typically given on the first Tuesday of the month, with the hope that we might attract those who are outside of academia. It’s been ongoing now for at least 25 years, and I believe it was started by Jim (James) Bradley, a dear friend and professor of the department who has since passed on. This is my second year organizing the Series, and our lectures are usually given at The Ship. So long as you’re over 19, you’re more than welcome to attend! Each lecture is followed by a 45 minute Q&A (give or take), so we really do encourage people to come out. The PLS gives us an opportunity to engage directly with the public, and we value that pretty highly.
- 2. In the past, what kind of events have you hosted? What kind of speakers have presented?
We’ve had topics range from the ethics of Dirty Harry to the future of Muskrat Falls. It’s hard to pin down what the lectures have in common. I think one way they’re related is in terms of their importance: be it climate change, morality, potential times to come—most of the topics presented tug at the heart of something meaningful, allowing us to question what is oftentimes ignored. Most of the speakers are either professors or Ph.D. candidates from the local academic community, but sometimes we get lucky and have a visiting academic. Our last speaker, for example, Chandra Kavanagh, is completing her Ph.D. at McMaster University. She’s doing some excellent work on contemporary feminism, among other things, and gave the year’s closing lecture on some issues surrounding consent.
- 3. Do you have anyone lined up for this semester so far? If so, what topics will they be presenting on? What can people look forward to?
We do indeed! Though I can’t yet speak for the rest of the semester, our upcoming lecture on February 6 is being given by David Tracey, a Ph.D. candidate at MUN. His talk is actually slightly different from what we’re used to seeing, but I think it really captures the spirit of the PLS. In his own words, “within the study of philosophy, it is easy to fall into the trap of focusing only on the content—that is, the people and books and ideas in which we are most interested.” What Tracey wishes to stress is that this is only one side of the issue: philosophy is equally something that we do: “it is an act or a craft, and it is very much something that we must learn how to do.” Speaking from experience, it is deceptively easy to treat philosophy as a reservoir of information. Kant said this, Plato said that, etc. etc. But at the heart of philosophy is the way we answer questions. How can we determine what we morally ought to do? The meaning of our lives? The rules of valid inference? Though these questions can be exciting, and their answers all the more, until we learn what it is we are doing when we attempt these questions, endeavors in this vein are more or less proceeding blindly. I think Tracey’s talk captures the spirit of the PLS because it opens a discussion of what it means to ask these questions—a meaning we hope to share with those who don’t already study them.
4. In your opinion, why is it important to engage with the community outside of classes? What benefits come from putting off and attending these kinds of events?
I think that there’s a tendency to view philosophers as having their heads in the clouds, asking questions from the armchair and ignoring what’s before us. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. Philosophers, along with other thinkers in the humanities and social sciences (as the PLS isn’t restricted to ‘philosophy’ in a technical sense), are very concerned with what we might call ‘real’ issues, the things that affect our day-to-day lives. Moral questions are probably the most evident example, but even what I’ve mentioned before, like the future of our province, has obvious practical bearing. The PLS gives us an opportunity not only to shed the contemporary myth that philosophy dwells in abstractions, but also opens the floor to those who otherwise mightn’t have joined in the discussion. Academia can be pretty esoteric: words are used in ways they aren’t outside the university, and this can be a barrier to those who are still on the fence. The PLS gives these people a chance to engage with the issues of academia, developing an understanding of the shape of current discussions, with the hope that these people might then desire more. But they’re not the only ones who benefit. We learn, too, in hearing the thoughts of those outside. What we want most of all is the truth of what is asked about; and the more thinkers that we have, and the more voices that we hear, the closer we are to getting it. That’s why I think the PLS is so important: it lets us share perspectives.
By: Leslie Claire Amminson