Midwest Faculty Seminar Topics and Dates for 2014-2015

The Theory of Moral Sentiments

October 30-November 1, 2014
Gustavus Application Deadline: October 3rd

Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments is one of the foundational texts of the Scottish Enlightenment, not to mention one of the most widely taught works in European intellectual history as well. For all its popularity, however, many aspects of Smith’s argument remain understudied or simply misunderstood, especially where the links between Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations are concerned. This seminar reconsiders the foundations of Smith’s moral philosophy, with a particular emphasis on the context out of which Smith’s work emerges, its place in European intellectual history, and the way Smith understands the links between his moral and economic thought. What defined the intellectual milieu in which Smith produced this seminal work? How should we understand the relationship between the ideas Smith puts forth in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and his contemporaries and predecessors in Britain, Germany and France? And in what way does Smith’s understanding of the foundations of morality bear on the foundations of his economic philosophy? Can the two be separated from one another? Or does capitalism as Smith understands it rely in a fundamental way on his account of morality? At a time when the moral foundations of capitalism are ever more in question, the seminar hopes to consider this fundamental work of moral and economic philosophy anew.

Order and Liberty in the Information Age

January 15-17, 2015
Gustavus Application Deadline: December 8, 2014

New information technologies are often credited with making it difficult for governments to control information. Twitter, for example, is said to have played a role in fomenting the Arab Spring, while many recent leak scandals in the US suggest how hard it is to control access to even the most sensitive government data. Just as often, however, the apparent freedoms made possible by the information age have produced novel forms of surveillance and control. It is, for instance, startlingly easy for governments to cut off access to the Internet, and story after story about NSA surveillance shows how quickly surveillance regimes can spiral out of control. This seminar explores the tensions between order and liberty in our information age, as well as the ways in which the proliferation of social media and other forms of techno-sociality has changed how we think about the nature of information, ownership and control. In what ways have social media and other information technologies enabled the spread of otherwise isolated information? How have those same technologies complicated the way we understand the nature of privacy and the boundaries of government surveillance? What do recent controversies surrounding, for instance, Bradley Manning and Wikileaks, or Edward Snowden and the NSA, tell us about the nature of information and the boundaries of government sovereignty? Can our data ever be our own? Or are we entering into an era in which even our most private experiences are part of a technological public sphere?

Everyday Life

February 26-28, 2015
Gustavus Application Deadline: January 19, 2015

At first glance, the meaning of ‘everyday life’ may seem clear. However, for as long as ‘everyday life’ and the range of objects, affects, and practices it calls to mind have been studied, scholars have engaged in intense debate over what everyday life is and how best represent it. This seminar considers the current state of scholarship on everyday life, with a special focus on the different ways in which it has been conceptualized written about in different disciplinary sites and geographic locales. What defines the study of the everyday among scholars working in Europe? How have scholars working in places like India, Africa, and the Caribbean taken up their work? What, moreover, is the everyday to historians and literary critics? Sociologists and anthropologists? Philosophers and linguists? And in what ways scholars tried to represent the everyday life in their work? Can the academic essay capture the elusive nature of what scholarship in this area tries to represent? Or does the study of everyday life demand a reconsideration of scholarly genres as well? By exploring a wide range of ways in which scholars in the humanities and social sciences have conceptualized everyday life, the seminar hopes, on one level, to come to terms with an area of inquiry that is often as elusive as it is influential. At the same time, however, it also aims to develop a sense of the ways in which the study of everyday life has influenced the way scholars across the disciplines do their work today.

What is human nature?

April 16-18, 2015
Gustavus Application Deadline: March 9, 2015

The question of what makes us human has traditionally belonged to fields such as anthropology, theology and philosophy. Increasingly, however, evolutionary biology, cognitive psychology and even economics have begun to explore the question as well. As a result, notions about the underpinnings of being human cherished in the humanities are being challenged by scientific inquiries that promises to fundamentally transform the way we think about the nature of reason, emotion, language, values and the determinants of human behavior. This seminar explores the contributions made by the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences to our current understanding of human nature, including the contrasts among diverse disciplinary approaches to the question. How have disciplines like philosophy and theology traditionally approached the question of what it is to be human? What vision of the human person has resulted? How, by contrast, are cognitive science and neurobiology coming to understand the foundations of human personhood? In ways do they challenged our longstanding received wisdom as regards human subjectivity? Are the sciences taking over what used to be the sole province of humanistic inquiry? Or does this wide-ranging new scholarship open the possibility of new forms of collaboration between these otherwise differing fields?