Judith Butler Featured As Living Philosopher


– written by Jeff Canning for StudentAdvisor

This is not your grandparents’ philosophy.

When hearing the term philosopher, long-dead thinkers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle often come to mind. But students at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., are quickly learning that philosophy isn’t just a relic of the past, and instead is still a living and ever-changing phenomenon.

The Symposium on Living Philosophers gives students an opportunity to study the works of a contemporary philosopher over the course of the entire year, and also brings the modern-day thinker to campus for face-to-face interaction.

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“The Symposium is a unique academic program in that it not only brings a world-renowned philosopher onto campus for a public lecture, but also into the classroom, where students can engage directly with the living thinker they are studying,” said Karen Ng, assistant professor of philosophy and symposium co-director. “Students get to work through their ideas with the featured philosopher, and the symposium culminates in a public panel discussion in which students present their research directly to the philosopher. It is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for students.”

Students will focus their studies this year on Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot professor of rhetoric and comparative literature at the University of California in Berkeley. Butler is most famous for her work on gender and sexuality, but has also published nearly twenty books on topics ranging from war, torture, human vulnerability and disability to issues of power, desire, language, identity and the conflict in the Middle East.

Butler made her first trip to Siena’s campus on Thursday, Oct. 5, and presented to nearly 400 students and faculty members. She spoke about the disruptions and breaches within kin relations that are constitutive of their everyday functioning, and incorporated an original reading of Euripedes’ “The Bacchae.”

“Feedback from students has been overwhelmingly positive,” Ng said. “Many students asked questions to Butler directly during the presentation, and several others met her during the reception. Many students and faculty have expressed their enthusiasm about Butler’s visit.”

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The lecture kicked off the a year-long series of guest speakers, that will also include Lisa Guenther, associate professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University, and Annika Thiem, associate professor of philosophy at Villanova University. The series concludes when Butler returns to campus on April 10, at the conclusion of the course. Students will then have the opportunity to share their impressions of her work after their in-depth focus.

Beginning in 2005, the Symposium runs every other year. Past years have studied and hosted modern-day thinkers including Richard Rorty, Michael Walzer, John Caputo and Kwame Anthony Appiah, making Butler the first woman to be featured in this highlighted forum.

Ng believes that studying philosophy in a contemporary sense not only allows individuals to better understand the world around them, but also to lead lives with much deeper meaning.

“The practice of philosophy helps us become more critical thinkers, and in this context, whether we are reading Plato and Aristotle, or the contemporary philosophers of today, their value lies in challenging what we take for granted and challenging our most deep-seated presuppositions so that we can think about ourselves and our conditions anew,” she said. “Although studying the history of ideas is crucial to understanding our present, contemporary philosophers show us that history is ongoing, that philosophy is not just something we read in dusty old books, but something that we do. It is an ongoing activity essential to being human.”

Jeff Jeff Canning is an account executive at Dick Jones Communications.


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