Month: October 2016

Get to Know Our Fellows: Four Questions with Lauren Swayne Barthold

Lauren BartholdLauren Swayne Barthold is a residential research fellow with the Humanities Institute’s Humility and Conviction in Public Life Project

H&C: What is your academic background and what is your current position in UCHI/at UConn/Your Home Institution?

LB: For the past 11 years I have taught in the philosophy department at Gordon College, where I helped start and then direct the Gender Studies Minor. My main areas of teaching have been ethics, gender studies, pragmatism, and feminist theology. My scholarship has primarily focused on the the twentieth-century German philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer, who was instrumental in developing what’s called “philosophical hermeneutics.” Hermeneutics refers to the “art of interpretation” and although it originally applied to texts, today philosophical hermeneutics explores what it means to understand in general. What goes on in the process of understanding? Much of my writing has been devoted to demonstrating the relevance of philosophical hermeneutics for other areas of thought. For instance, my most recent book, A Hermeneutic Approach to Gender and Other Social Identities, uses hermeneutics to develop a theory of social identities. I have also written on a hermeneutic approach to the ethics of bio-enhancement.


H&C: What is the project you’re currently working on?

LB: I am working on a new book project called Critical, Fallible Dialogue, which fits really well with the “Humility and Conviction” theme. A good dialogue is one that starts from a place of strong conviction, where something is at stake. Because something is at stake one is motivated to critically reflect on the issue, one’s own position, and the merits of the other’s position. Dialogue is not an empty exchange in which anything goes. At the same time, we need to acknowledge our own fallibility. We don’t know everything–even if (especially if!) we have strong convictions about something. When we engage with another it’s important to come with the humility that one’s own position is fallible. How do we balance critique with fallibilism? What other factors contribute to a strong dialogue? What sorts of structural practices curtail or foster a good dialogue? My new book attempts to answer these questions by developing an interdisciplinary model of dialogue drawing on Buber, Gadamer, feminist theorists, critics of deliberative democracy, and dialogic practitioners.


H&C: How did you arrive at this topic?

LB: Gadamer, in part, drew on the work of Martin Buber’s seminal I and Thou to demonstrate the dialogical nature of understanding and some of my previous work has articulated a concept of dialogue based on Gadamer’s hermeneutics. But also, personally, having spent most of my life in fairly conservative religious environments, I’ve seen the importance of trying to figure out how people with strong convictions can get along with those who hold different convictions. How do we address difference? How do we get along with others who disagree with us? Obviously there is no shortage of conviction in most religious communities! How do we create spaces for critique and critical reflection within and among religious communities is a question I’ve struggled with for most of my life. Personally, I reject all forms of violence (and threats of violence) as a solution. And since I would name (some forms of) silence and silencing others as a form of violence—choosing not to talk to others is not a viable option. So how do we talk with others who hold very different sets of convictions? What does philosophy have to say about this? In general, philosophers have tended to focus on what I call a hyper-rationalistic model that privileges an exchange of reasons. This is exemplified by two of the most important political philosophers of the twentieth century, Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls. Both devoted their lives’ works to figuring out how citizens can cultivate strong and peaceful democracies based on an exchange of reasons. And while I think the work they have done is tremendously important, my sense is that it takes seriously only one dimension of the human, that is, reason. If we are not just “rational animals” but also relational and emotional animals, then what does a successful model of discourse look like? When people come together, when we talk about creating community, persuading one another, agreement, and living together, focusing on reason alone is not necessarily the best way to create strong democratic and peaceful communities. When one looks at the work that dialogic practitioners do, one sees not only the limitations of focusing on reason alone but how doing so can actually heighten conflict. The “Power of Dialogue” training I received with Essential Partners (Cambridge, MA) was an excellent way for me to experience first hand a more experiential approach to dialogue. My book is an attempt to bring all these parts of my life and research together.


H&C: What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?

LB: Unfortunately in the US, there is not much of an appreciation for public intellectuals. I am thrilled that part of Michael Lynch’s vision for the Humanities Institute is to work to change that by inviting academics to conceive a wider audience for their work. Humanists need a venue to get excited about the wider relevance of their work! While by the end of the twentieth century American philosophers had cloistered themselves off from the public, that had not always been case for philosophers. American pragmatism at the beginning of the twentieth century provides excellent examples, like John Dewey, of powerful philosophic voices that spoke to current issues. And I had the good fortune of studying with the contemporary pragmatist Richard Bernstein who, following in the footsteps of John Dewey, modeled an “engaged, fallibilistic pluralism” not only in his academic scholarship but in his role as a teacher and as a human being. My aim in writing my present book is to encourage people to take seriously the roll of dialogue in a democracy. I hope that as we come together to try to reinvigorate our democracy at this critical juncture, we will consider anew what it means to be active democratic citizens, and realize that dialogue is fundamental to that project.

November 11 & 12, Intellectual Humility and Public Deliberation Workshop

Although not stated using the particular phrase, something like intellectual humility in public discourse appears to be one of the foundational aspects of deliberative theory. For example, Rawls’s concept of the fact of reasonable pluralism, Habermas’s theory of testing validity claims, and even Fishkin’s call for a more reflective public opinion all rely upon the basic assumption that citizens accept that they and those like them might not be correct in their beliefs or preferences. Citizens must, at least eventually, be open to the possible influence of others with whom they disagree; without this possibility, it would be hard to call the democracy deliberative. This workshop will bring together leading scholars and promising new researchers from philosophy, political theory, and political science to discuss topics at the intersection of intellectual humility, public reason, and deliberation. Topics include the place and nature of intellectual humility in public discourse, the possible determinants that mitigate against or encourage its presence (e.g. open‑mindedness, tolerance, and empathy); and the ways in which intellectual humility arises in actual public discourses and practices of deliberation.

Information about speakers and talk abstracts can be found here.

The full schedule of activities can be found here.

Register for the event here.

November 10, 2016: Alexander Heffner, PBS. “Picking Up the Pieces”

Alexander Heffner DebatePlease Join us for a Livestream today 11.10.2016 at 7:00 PM ET.

What will politics look like in the United States after the tumultuous 2016 election? On November 10, 2016, Humility and Conviction in Public Life will host Alexander Heffner, Host of PBS’s The Open Mind and a discussion on “Picking up the Pieces” of U.S. political discourse. “Humility and conviction are indeed the path forward if we are going to break through the cycle of incivility in American politics that has defined our 2016 presidential campaign, I am delighted to join the UConn community just days after we vote…to reflect on this unprecedented election, and to consider a vision for more civil American democracy.”

Heffner will be joined by UConn professor of political science Evelyn Simien and UConn professor of history, Micki McElya. Professor Simien’s most recent book, Historic Firsts: How Symbolic Empowerment Changes U.S. Politics, was published by Oxford University Press in 2015 and considers the historic firsts in American politics, including President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Published earlier this year by Harvard University Press, Professor McElya’s most recent book, The Politics of Mourning: Death and Honor in Arlington National Cemetery, examines the larger political and cultural implications of the history of Arlington National Cemetery. The discussion will be hosted by Michael Lynch, a professor of philosophy, the director of the UConn Humanities Institute, and the Principal Investigator of ‘Humility and Conviction in Public Life’ project which was the recent recipient of $6 million in grant funding from the John Templeton Foundation. He is the author of the recent book, The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data.

October 25, 2016. Deva Woodly – The Public Discourse Project seminar series

devaDeva Woodly

Date: 10/25.

Time: 4:00 – 5:30 pm.

Location: Babbidge Library 4th floor room   4/209 meeting.

The Pragmatism of Social Movements

We often think of Social Movements as ideal enterprises; activities undertaken by passionate idealists who eschew the corruption of the status quo for the purity of an imagined better world. While the passion and idealism of social movement participants is certainly real, I argue that if we look at movements through the theoretical lens of American pragmatism, we find that they are an utterly practical, functionally necessary, and immanently effective apart of democratic politics. Taking the contemporary example of the Movement for Black Lives, we will explore the pragmatic imagination, organization, articulation, and political participation of this country’s ascendant 21st century movement.

The Public Discourse Project seminar series upcoming speakers

October 18, Peter Zarrow: UConn Political Theory Workshop


Peter Zarrow


Babbidge Library, 4th Floor, Room 4/209

From Trotskyism to Proletarian Democracy: China, 1930s
This paper explores the trajectory of the political thought of Chen Duxiu (1879-1942) through the 1930s.  Chen’s ideas changed dramatically over his lifetime but a utopian vision of true democracy was central to his thought.  He is best known as a co-founder and first general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, and he dismissed democracy as regressive “bourgeois democracy” during the time of his membership in the Party from 1921 to 1929.  However, Chen was a leading advocate of democracy both before the 1911 Revolution and especially in its wake in the 1910s.  And again he returned to the theme of democracy in the 1930s.  This paper focuses on how Chen “returned” to democratic thinking over the course of the 1930s.  I argue that Chen’s conversion to Trotskyism allowed him to make sense of the CCP’s defeat (1927-1928) and stimulated him to rethink revolutionary goals as well as strategies.  Though he eventually abandoned Trotskyism, he did not precisely return to either the liberal or communitarian democracy he had earlier advocated, but rather developed the notion of proletarian democracy.  In Chen’s understanding, democracy was a kind of universal force unfolding through history and realized through class struggle.

October 14, Amy Shuster: “The finest rule of life we have” on the value of ambiguity for democratic praxis

The Injustice League lecture series brings together philosophers and political theorists working on issues of injustice. We focus on inviting junior faculty who aren’t typically given this kind of forum.

shuster-headshotAmy Shuster (Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy The Ohio State University)

Date: 10/14

“The finest rule of life we have” on the value of ambiguity for democratic praxis

Danielle Allen’s Our Declaration (2015) revitalized interest in the U.S. Declaration of Independence among those committed to equality as a foundational American ideal—especially feminists, anti-racists, and anti-colonialists.  But the meaning of the document has a checkered history in the United States and abroad.  While some—like David Walker, Justice Taney, and Malcolm X—point to the civil and political subordination of women, slaves, freed persons, the poor, American-Indians, and the indigenous people in other parts of the world at the founding (and in various forms to this day) as reason to think that the document is merely political cover for domination, others—like Abraham Lincoln, Anita Whitney, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ho Chi Minh—have found in it a promise of equality for future generations, regardless of nationality.  What are the principles of interpretation that lie behind such a diverse set of readings, especially of the document’s distinctive phrases like “all men are created equal”?  Are all of them equally defensible upon reflection?  I aim to weaken both the starry-eyed disposition to find too much in the Declaration and the hard-nosed determination to find too little.  In the end, I vindicate its meaning for democrats who are committed to a principle of equal inclusion in an on-going political community characterized by a variety of differences among its members.