I’m back for the fall, with a new concept for a series of posts. I’m going to be inviting various far-flung folk in the field to send in reports on what they’re up to. The goal, as always, is to help build the community of medieval philosophy, by connecting us virtually in between our occasional meetings at conferences. So here, leading off the series, is Taneli Kukkonen, who’s journeys since 2003 have taken him all over the globe, beginning with a four-year stint at the University of Victoria in the far west of Canada, then four years at the University of Jyväskylä, in northern Finland, then a couple of years way down under, at the University of Otago, New Zealand, and since 2014 as Professor of Philosophy (and now program head) at New York University Abu Dhabi. That has to be some kind of record for geographical promiscuity. Here’s his report:
Thanks to Bob for inviting me to report on what I have going on, research-wise. Having arrived at New York University Abu Dhabi three years ago, things are beginning to look up, although it’s always disheartening to realize that with each intercontinental move valuable projects and good people have got lost in the shuffle, for no better reason than basic human frailty. To all those whom I have neglected or lost touch with, my sincere apologies.
1. The first order of business is that my long-term engagement with al-Ghazali is now approaching the finish line. Articles and essays keep tumbling out of what was supposed to be a straightforward book project illumining al-Ghazali’s philosophical side. But I remain confident that my Great Medieval Thinkers volume on al-Ghazali will be finished early next year. In the meantime, I am convening a workshop in December with the NYUAD Institute, on ‘Al-Ghazali’s Major Works’. The meeting is simultaneously positioned as the launch party for the Ghazali Study Network (GSN), a loose association of scholars committed to advancing our understanding of this subtle and complex figure. The GSN’s activities will long outlast my personal patience with the man, or so at any rate I dare hope.
2. A fresh and altogether more ambitious research program is a conceptual history of ‘Vice’ that I envision as a collaborative, indeed worldwide affair. This is an idea I shamelessly pinched from Julia Annas when she visited NYUAD last year (one wonderful facet of life at NYUAD are the many awe-inspiring academics and artists we have passing through or enjoying extended stays). Julia has recently been thinking about how best to conceive of vice–some of the material she treats comes from ancient philosophy, naturally, but her interest is properly systematic–and it occurred to me that vice would be a topic ripe for exploration in transhistorical and cross-cultural perspective, befitting NYUAD’s ambition to become a hub for global philosophy.
Team-teaching ‘Global Ethics’ with Anthony Appiah further made me confront some of the problems associated with the concept of virtue ethics being applied as if it would straightforwardly pick out a natural kind, or a phenomenon uniform in shape and substance across different time-periods and cultures. And what better way to pry open the issues than by investigating its complementary opposite–the notion of vice, which so far has received far less consideration? An exploratory workshop is the first phase and the Platonic, Aristotelian, and Stoic traditions (Greek, Arabic, Latin, Hebrew) all self-evidently have a place in the planning. But I want to invite scholars of Indian and Chinese philosophy to the table as well. We will see what becomes of it all; interested medievalists should definitely get in touch.
3. I have other project in my sights, including a long-ago commissioned OUP book on ‘Classical Arabic Philosophy’ (those pesky survey monographs!) and a little volume on the Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki (!). But one thing that may intrigue medievalists is that together with Margaret Cameron (UVic), we have initiated talks about an essay collection on ‘philosophical traditions’. This volume reflects a longstanding interest on both our parts in philosophical methodology and the role of history within it. And although the question about how best to approach medieval philosophy forms only one strand in our conversations, we cannot but evince our personal experience in the projected work.
All in all, NYU Abu Dhabi so far has proved a fantastically amenable and forward-looking place to pursue a somewhat cross-disciplinary and freewheeling philosophical career. The environment is constantly challenging and enormously intellectually stimulating (1,400 students, 110 nationalities!). And although for a senior academic the administrative burden can get quite heavy, it is all in the service of institution-building, which is rewarding work and something few of us ever get to do in such a substantial sense. NYUAD and its peer institutions to my mind reveal us something important about academia in the 21st century; they provide a window into the future, through which I feel lucky to get to peer.