Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Multiple Histories of Virtue

by J J Cohen

The Arete Initiative of the University of Chicago is sponsoring a New Science of Virtues grant competition. Eileen and I collaborated with Jessica Palmer and Jonah Lehrer to propose a project, and we thought we'd share it with you.

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Virtue and Its Multiple Histories:
Time, Disciplinary Fixations, and the Limits of the Human

Submitted for “A New Science of Virtues” Grant Competition by:

We are an interdisciplinary team of researchers who represent disparate fields (literature, history, biology, art, and cognitive science) and distant time periods (the premodern and the modern). Jeffrey J. Cohen and Eileen Joy are scholars of medieval literature and cultural studies; Jessica Palmer is a biologist and an artist; Jonah Lehrer is an award-winning journalist whose work focuses on cognitive science in dialogue with the humanities. The four of us are interested in utilizing new modes of electronic communication (especially but not limited to the three blogs we manage and author: In the Middle, Bioephemera, and The Frontal Cortex) to foster new cross-disciplinary scholarly and creative communities. Our intention is to bring into being a dedicated research collective composed of academics (humanists, social scientists, and scientists), journalists, and artists who will collectively explore the following questions with us:
  1. Does virtue have a history that might challenge what we now assume the category to mean at present? We propose that the answer to this question is yes, and we are specifically interested in the medieval concept of vertu. The source of the modern English noun “virtue,” derived from a Latin noun connected to power and strength, vertu carries in medieval English and French a wide range of meanings: vigor, efficacy, imaginative power, physiological faculty, medicinal property, inherent quality or substance, attribute of divinity, probity, moral excellence, grace, nobility, significance or worth, and an intrinsic property that can affect exterior conditions, typically for amelioration. Vertu can as easily be possessed by a diamond as by a knight or sovereign king. So we ask: How do geographical, religious, and other cultural differences determine the shape of virtue over time? How does a critically engaged encounter with the history of virtue help us to re-open the question of virtue’s future? Can virtue be approached abstractly, as something possessing its own materiality (theological or scientifically predetermined), or is virtue a lived and inter-subjective practice? If we conceptualize virtue as something potentially possessed by nonhumans, how does this change how we conceptualize the human? What happens when medieval vertu, with its wide range of meanings, enters into dialogue with contemporary cognitive science, in relation to thinking more deeply about the relations between humans, nonhuman objects, decision-making processes, and the creation of art?
  2. How can a confluence of science and art assist us in our project of estranging virtue from itself, of seeing virtue as something more challenging and more complex than received ideas suggest? We start with the assumption that our exploration of the questions outlined above will enable a mobile, adaptive, and capacious idea of virtue, and will clear a space for thinking the term outside its longtime solitary confinement to the realm of ethical philosophy. One initial assumption we share is that the creative impulse that human beings share with nature itself cannot be excluded from the scientific consideration of human motivation, deliberative processes, and what might be called virtue in action. We are interested here in something that fascinated premodern thinkers: what alliances do human beings form with nonhuman phenomenon and objects, and what actions either arise from or motivate the creation of such networks? Cognitive science can give us a fairly precise vocabulary for describing human interaction with a world full of nonhuman forces and objects. We wonder, however, how other vocabularies can supplement the insights of cognitive science for helping us to explore how aesthetic creations draw us out of ourselves and move us into encounters with a world more richly inter-subjective than the one in which we ordinarily dwell. These creations can as easily be the work of human hands (paintings, poems, cathedrals, music) as of inhuman forces (landscapes, oceans, animals, storms). Ultimately, we want to suggest that new understandings of virtue (formulated by a deep attention to certain productive confluences between history, science, and art) can offer us an ethos of wonder, capable of bringing the human into a wider and more generous frame of encounter with otherness.
  3. The culminating question, which we suspect is only really answerable through a productive alliance between history, science and art, is this: Is virtue possessed by the nonhuman? Our tentative answer is yes, and we believe that the most necessary investigation in which scientists and humanists should ally themselves today is over the question of what it means to be human in the first place is at stake. Given that the National Humanities Center is currently concluding its three-year initiative on “Autonomy, Singularity, and Creativity: The Humanities and the Human,” and have also initiated a new, ongoing forum, “On the Human,” on current controversies in the studies of humans, animals, and machines, the time is propitious for collaborative cross-disciplinary alliances such as the one we are proposing here, especially with respect to considerations of ethics. Subsidiary considerations here include: What is the relation between virtue and the human and nonhuman arts, both in the past and in the present? How do new technologies (especially digital culture) affect how we understand virtue in modernity? What connections might exist between new technological media and premodern "media" with relation to the development of virtue and a reconsideration of what it means to be human?
This project is conceptualized within a two-year horizon:

Year One: investigate our three questions via traditional research (compilation of bibliography; archival work; reading and review of existing scholarship; collaboration via email; and at least three meetings of all four collaborators). We will host a series of electronic symposia on our topic via our three associated blogs.

Year Two: Continued research and the undertaking of a major writing project that will culminate in a book. An international symposium on our topic will be organized in Washington, DC (or, if the Arete Initiative prefers, in Chicago) and will bring together the four co-investigators and those with whom they have been collaborating electronically. We will focus upon moving our answers to our three questions from provisional status to peer-vetted, cogent formulations that are as much addressed to thinking about the past and the present of virtue as to its future. The remainder of year two will be given over to the completion of the book on
our findings.

1 comment:

afarber said...

Good luck. It sounds like a really interesting project. And I think it would be really fun coming up with a classical/medieval reading list for the first question (esp. the part that applies to humans).

And hey, if you actually have this symposium, I could try to convince my philosopher/neuroscientist brother to attend. I never imagined we'd cross paths when it came to our research* ... but why not?

(*Asking him to explain miscellaneous philosophical terms to me does not count.)