“Nomos and Physis”: Duquesne University’s 7th Annual Graduate Conference in Philosophy

There was a very nice turnout at Duquesne University’s 7th Annual graduate conference in philosophy (themed “Nomos and Physis”).  A big thanks goes to the Duquesne Department of philosophy and Matt Lovett for running such a well-organized event.  The spread of papers presented was diverse array of subtopics: Phenomenology and Nature; Nature In Itself, Nature for Us; Nature in Ancient Philosophy; Contemporary Ontologies and Nature.  The general sentiment around the room seemed to be that the questions, discussion, and commentary was productive.  Probably the most fascinating element of the conference —I know not if it was by design or happenstance— was that the papers reflected holistic approaches to philosophical considerations pertaining to Nature.  

Adrian Johnston gave a fascinating paper, which rather unfortunately, I was bordering on delirium during (I caught some bug going around); which is to say I only caught part of the paper.  I had only recently come to the understanding that transcendental materialism is a qualitative (almost neo-vitalist) approach the philosophical and scientific subject matter, which spurred my interest onward.  Consequently, expecting to chat him up at the dinner I would not make it to, I read a number of his papers pertaining to Kant and Meillassoux, on the way to the conference.  I was really looking forward, but alas!  The interesting thing is that I came across Johnston’s work from two very different avenues.  The first is that I have an interest in Zizek, and I am really not familiar with anyone who has written significantly more than Johnston on the topic of Zizek’s philosophy.  The other is that Johnston is a colleague of a scholar I began following this past year, Mary Domski.  Domski’s work on Kant and Newton are much more within the scope of my professional interest, so it was interesting to come across one of her colleagues who studies something that I spend my “free time” on.  Really, that the Speculative Turn is so fascinating and outside of my central set of interests is what made the Duquesne conference a nice opportunity to me, even if it didn’t quite go as planned.  (I was in pretty bad shape at about 3 or 4 minutes into the presentation.)

There were a couple of interesting points in the papers presented that got me thinking.  Clayton Shoppa of the New School presented a wonderful paper, called The Newest Oldest Philosophical Problem, in which he likened ethereal/abstract forms of philosophy to fish out of water, and likened existentialism to a fish in water.  Surprising to my mind was the fact that he didn’t really talk about pragmatism.  I wondered whether he would predicate the same fish-in-water status to pragmatism, as he had with existentialism.  It’s interesting.  It’s interesting because neither is considered an outright philosophy, even though so classified; and this couplet possesses an interesting duality, because one is thought to be rational and the other irrational.  Therefore, the fish-in-water status has a class of properties that seem to make them “non-philosophy,” in some sense, and this does not imply necessarily some non-rational status.  I have a particular affinity for both brands of philosophy, so I wonder what Shoppa thinks about this, and what relation it bears to the conclusions of his paper.  I didn’t ask this question at the conference, because he was inundated by (really good) questions from the Duquesne students.  Based on the barrage of questions, his paper seemed to be a wild success, both in substance and in jump-starting thought.

There was also a fascinating point, however peripheral, that came out of Samule Galson’s (Princeton) talk.  His talk was called Greek Light: Nature between Phenomenology and Science.  It featured some discussion of Goethe’s reaction to Newton’s corpuscular theory of light, and what interested me, not knowing Goethe very well, was the extent to which he was influenced by Kant, if at all.  Being a Romantic scientist, to some extent, I presume Goethe was influenced by the Metaphysical Foundation of Natural Science (directly or indirectly), just as others, like Ørsted, had been.  The possible tension is clear: Kant’s critical project was structured around, in part, establishing a metaphysical foundation for Newton’s system, yet, possibly embracing that metaphysics, Goethe goes against the physics of Newton.  I would like to know more about what actually was going on with Goethe, insofar as influences and what the real impetuses of thought were.  That the metaphysics of a system would, for one thinker, complement the system, while coming into conflict within the mind of another thinker, is fascinating.  I tried to squeeze Galson for more info, just to see if he would say anything interesting —I hate to put people on the spot, and I am much more a conversationalist than someone who thrived with a lecturer-lectured correlationism.  However, I think Galson might be a classicist, because his retort was of that sort of flavor.  Probably, if I knew more about Goethe’s aesthetics, I would be able to do more in the way of pinning down whether he was influenced by Kant, and, possibly, whether something in Kantian aesthetics has a plaint, from Goethe’s perspective, with Kantian metaphysics.  It’s all very interesting, but much too far out of the way of science and philosophy of science I do, for me to make heads or tails of it.  All in all, it was a wonderful talk, as I am also a fan of J. M. W. Turner.

Perhaps the most interesting talk for me, personally, was the one given by Patrick McHugh of Guelph.  His talk was entitled, Creating Creative Nature: Whitehead’s Panpsychism as a Cosmology of Contingent Order and a Cosmogony of Valuation.  The notion of panpsychism, because it is rather removed from science, does not, I think, receive nearly enough attention.  The problem for me, in this talk, was that the central substance was outside of my locus of reading.  Such tends to be the case, when attending a conference that is slightly removed from one’s area of expertise —in my case, physics and the philosophy of physics.  The central substance being Whitehead, I really wished the papers for the conference would have been circulated prior.  As it is, I tend to be a much slower (albeit exhaustive) thinker, and the general once-over of having read the article prior would have been very useful to me.  Apparently, philosophy conferences tend not to circulate papers prior to the conference, which is very much outside of my experience with physics conferences, where preprints rain down on the audience.  C’est la vie.  The talk was fascination, and I look forward to getting my hands on the actual paper.  As it stands, I have a copy of Whitehead’s Process and Reality at the ready, prepared to acclimatize myself.

As for my talk, my head was so cloudy I am not sure how coherent it was, and I am pretty sure I spoke nonsense on one or two occasions.  Hopefully, my Powerpoint slides got the point across (click here), and, of course, my paper was originally made available on this blog, back in November.  Click here the last, non-physically-technical version of the paper.  Naturally, Adrian Johnston had a bunch of questions, being so ground-level involved with the Speculative Turn.  He had a bunch of questions that would have required very, very extensive treatment, which was not possible in the given Q&A session.  For example, he wanted to know what relation I think Meillassoux bears to Nancy Cartwright and the Stanford School.  Anyone who reads this blog will know that, in my opinion, Meillassoux’s paper on “Subtraction and Contraction” is the place to begin in answering this question.  The explanation is long, and, given that I am currently knee-deep in Cartwight’s corpus, trying to find my way, the answer he was looking for could not come.  I should have just said, “ask me later.”  I wanted to discuss these things, but I think the conversational forum was better suited.  I say this especially given one thing Johnston said to me.  He told me that Meillassoux turns away from phenomenology explicitly.  I am not sure whether Johnston misunderstood that I meant phenomenology qua phenomenological realm, or whether he meant the world of sense, in general.  Meillassoux affords the same ontological status to secondary qualities as primary qualities, so I don’t know whether Johnston’s thinking was that Meillassoux has, in fact, not upgraded secondary qualities, but downgraded primary qualities.  But that wouldn’t make sense, because Meillassoux has hoped in bed with Galileo, and Bruno Latour has even claimed that Meillassoux is guilty of platonizing the world.  I simply meant to avoid the word aufgegeben, which is to say, I avoid the word “given,” because the German means “passively given.”  I am fully aware that Meillassoux rejects phenomenology qua the philosophy of Heidegger as correlationist.  Beyond the reconciliation of the misunderstanding, as presented here, I am really not sure what to make of what Johnston said.  It could be that, in my sustained delirium, I completely mistook him.  Feel free to comment, if you feel you understand where the misunderstanding lies.

Again, the event was great, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Save the desire to have operated in a greater capacity, I would not have changed much about the conference.

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Filed under Cosmology, History of Science, Kantian Philosophy, Natural Philosophy, Philosophy, Philosophy of Physics, Philosophy of Science, Physics, Popular Science

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