State of the Art: Taneli Kukkonen

Hi everyone,

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.
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Concerns for a Distinguished Center for Medieval Philosophy

The Philosophy Department at the University of St. Thomas (Houston) seems to be at some risk of “reorganization and/or elimination.” See details at the Daily Nous. Would the school really have the nerve to eliminate the Philosophy Department and continue calling itself the University of Saint Thomas? Perhaps it might better, at that point, sell off the naming rights to the school to some more suitable benefactor.

Update as of May 19, 2017: The latest word is that the Department’s PhD program will be eliminated. This, which is of course bad enough in its own right, will have the further consequence of “allow[ing] the administration to change the terms of our contracts and increase course loads and remove tenure.” This from John Hittinger, department chair. See the detailed update at the Daily Nous.

Late Spring News

This will probably be my last post until August. First, some information about upcoming events:

  • The Collège de France is holding a two-day international colloquium, Philosopher au XIIe siècle, at the end of May (Paris, May 29-30, 2017).
  • There’s a conference on Knowledge as Assimilation, ranging over ancient and medieval material, co-sponsored by the Rationality in Perception group in Helsinki and the Representation and Reality group in Gothenberg (Helsinki, June 9-11, 2017).
  • The University of Bonn is holding a conference this summer, on “Time and Modality. Medieval and Contemporary Perspectives” (July 20-22, 2017). Immediately before the conference (July 17-19), they’re running a summer school in conjunction with themes from the conference. The application deadline for the summer school is May 31. Details on the summer school here.
  • The Thomas-Institut has sent out its call for papers for the 2018 Cologne Mediaevistentagung. The topic is The Library: Spaces of Thought and Knowledge Systems. The submission deadline is August 15, 2017. See details here.

Next, some information about people:

  • Nate Bulthius, a recent Cornell PhD, is interviewed at the APA blog, where he discusses in some detail his perspective on studying medieval philosophy.
  • Thomas Ward, currently at Loyola Marymount, is moving to Baylor University, starting this coming fall. With John Haldane already there, as well as Francis Beckwith, and with Tim O’Connor joining the department as well, this makes Baylor quite a prominent option for graduate study in medieval philosophy.

And then some links, both, as it happens, pertaining to Scotus:

  • Tobias Hoffmann’s very useful Scotus bibliography is now available here, where it continues to be updated.
  • Thomas Williams has just come out with an extensive collection of English translations of Scotus’s ethical work (OUP 2017). In addition to the book, there is a website, here. On the website, there are additional translations, links to some of Thomas’s papers, and a remarkable unpublished essay that makes the case for why the Vatican edition of Ordinatio III.26-40 is “so frequently bad that no responsible scholar can rely on it.”

Finally, jobs:

  • There’s a three-year postdoc position at the above-mentioned Helsinki project, Rationality in Perception: Transformations of Mind and Cognition 1250-1550. The application deadline is May 29, 2017. Details here.
  • There’s a two-year postdoc advertised in Munich, connected to the project Natur in politischen Ordnungsentwürfen: Antike, Mittelalter, Neuzeit. Quoting from the ad, “The central concern of the project is the medieval reaction to the ancient idea that God’s rulership to the universe is comparable to that between a political ruler and the state that s/he governs.” The application deadline is June 1, 2017. Details here.

Arthur Hyman (1921-2017)

Arthur Hyman died earlier this month. He taught at Yeshiva University in New York City for 55 years, and published groundbreaking research on Jewish, Islamic, and Christian medieval philosophy.

See the brief notice here, and the eulogy here, and the collection of interviews here.

Cultiver notre jardin

Here are two brief announcements about achievements in the field, one old and one newer.

  • The old news, from over the summer, is that Lodi Nauta (Groningen) has won the 2016 Spinoza Prize from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research. The prize is worth 2.5 million euros. As with the similar Leibniz Prize in Germany (which medievalists have also done well with), the point of the funding is to support the creation of a research team, in this case to explore the territory between medieval and early modern philosophy. Some of the positions at Groningen advertised this fall are the result of this prize.
  • The newer news is that Therese Cory’s paper “Knowing as Being? A Metaphysical Reading of the Identity of Intellect and Intelligibles in Aquinas” has been selected as the winner of the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly’s 2016 Rising Scholar Award. (Thanks to Gloria Frost for the information.)