Philosophical Society Achieves Ataraxia

It’s a Wednesday night and 20 students gather in Vollum not for a movie, or to discuss finances, but as the email sent out to all of them announced: “to situate the role of virtues in Epicurean hedonism once and for all.” Sent by the organization’s founder and the speaker for the night, Elise Woodard ’15, the phrase, following a description of what hedonism and virtue mean in the context of Epicureanism, and followed by a note stating “Epicurean delicacies will be served” relates the two main objectives of the club: providing a space for presentations of philosophically relevant arguments and creating an inclusive atmosphere for students of all disciplines who are interested in philosophical topics to evaluate and discuss the argument as presented. Woodard notes that “I don’t know of any other group [on campus] like us; we’re not doing political organizing, we’re not deciding on things to do outside of campus. I think the Philosophical Society is unique in being an academic club where you evaluate and discuss arguments. I think philosophy lends itself pretty well to this, it does things piecemeal, and each presentation is of stand-alone arguments that don’t require a lot of background knowledge.” Still, a lot of thought has gone into how the meetings should be structured.

Each meeting begins with a presentation lasting from 20–30 minutes. Woodard began her discussion by outlining a disagreement between hedonism and virtue that she was going to set out to resolve: as stated on her handout “hedonistic ethical theories, which define pleasure as the only good, seem incompatible with and parasitic on virtue ethics, which treat virtues as goods in themselves.” She went on describe that Epicureans, the theorists who inspired Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things, define pleasure as the only intrinsic good in their system of ethics but go on to claim that certain virtues are necessary in order to live a pleasurable existence. She resolved this conflict first by separating two kinds of pleasure, the kinetic and katastemic, the katastemic pleasures of freedom from disturbance for both the mind and body being those of importance to the theory. By arguing that there are representative passages in the extant Epicurean literature to suggest that they saw the virtues as the things that were meant to organize their lives in order to live a life in accordance to katastematic pleasure being the only inherent good. The virtues in this case justify the means to pleasure, and as necessary means to pleasure the only way for one experience the two katastematic pleasures; aponia, or freedom from bodily pain; and ataraxia, freedom from mental disturbance.

The meeting then shifted to a discussion of the argument as presented, with about half of the audience chiming in with one comment or another over the course of the next half hour, regular attendees like Jesse Gold ’16, Mirell Cohen ’15, and Drew Garcia ’15 among the leading voices as Woodard ably situated comments within the Epicurean framework she had established. The format of the meetings was one of the most important factors taken into account when Woodard was deciding what the organization was going to be. “I met with Troy [Cross (philosophy 2010–)] and discussed possible formats and went through different models and looked at forms from organizing meetings around readings to having them be open-ended discussions surrounding a particular topic. We decided it would be best if we want to do philosophy to do talks half presentation and half discussion.” The structure has remained the same as it was when the first talk was given by Sanjeev Verma ’15 in April of 2013, with the group confirming that that would remain the format following the first two meetings in Spring of 2013. “Most other philosophical societies have a broader approach where they talk about a chosen topic,” says Woodard. “Our approach is different because we require a speaker and have a set amount of time for discussion. That was a problem at [SUNY] Stonybrook [where Woodard attended before transferring to Reed her sophomore year]. It could be difficult to stay on topic,unless somebody had prepared a short talk on it. When somebody did that the conversation went well because it gave grounding to the topic. After a while people stopped showing up, with little variation it was male dominated. You’d have exchanges between two people that would last for about 20 minutes and most people would not get into it. Our approach keeps people on topic.”

One element of the Stonybrook discussions that is evidenced in Reed’s own Philosophical Society is the broad range of topics that can be presented on, which have ranged from Ancient to Modern, Aristotle to Marx, with one presentation deriving mostly from linguistics, with a lot of talk about possible worlds. Presenters from outside the student body have identified themselves as critical theorists and political scientists as well as philosophers and students from outside the philosophy department have contributed to the organization over the last two years. The number of topics that can be covered far exceeds that which would be covered by the course offerings of the Philosophy department. To a large degree this maintains the tenet central to the department of the importance of doing philosophy outside the classroom in order to be a philosopher and not a human version of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

One aspect of philosophical societies in general, according to Woodard, is that students are often encouraged to talk about whatever they’ve been thinking about in philosophy. While this is not necessarily negative, it can cause the discussion to get side-tracked and for people to be unfamiliar with what is being discussed. With the model put forth by the group at Reed, participants can come to a meeting with no previous knowledge of what the topic being discussed is but because it will be presented on they will be able to participate. To those who find this limiting, Woodard replies that if there is a philosophical topic that interests you then you should take time to research it and present it, rather than just coming in and talking about it. “I’d rather be more inclusive and than more exclusive,” says Woodard. “I’m trying to encourage more people to give talks on something they’ve written because then it’s not as intimidating.”

Woodard’s discussion of Epicurean Hedonism and Virtue was adapted from a paper she wrote for Hellenistic Philosophy last semester and many people have given discussions derived from their thesis work. “If the paper is well-selected then it doesn’t change much when it becomes a presentation,” says Woodard. “A historical paper gives more grounding for the debate. When you take a historical, most people are more familiar with it. With any philosophy paper you should just be presenting an argument and responding to it, but if you’re introducing someone to a subject then you should talk about two different subjects and create a debate, but both equally fit the format of discussion.”

One offshoot of the still young Philosophical Society was a Hegel Reading Group that met once a week for most of last semester, reading aloud passages from Hegel line-by-line. Most of the people involved had taken Peter Steinberger’s Marx and Engels class the previous semester and were well-versed in the topic beforehand, but Woodard would like to possibly see more of these types of reading groups surrounding a particular figure in philosophy in the future.

The Hegel Reading Group also sponsored an event through the Philosophical Society on Specters of Hegel, a debate between Steinberger and Professor of German Jan Mieszkowski which took place at the end of last semester. Well over a hundred people attended the event and this helped to give the Philosophical Society even more recognition within the Reed community. The group now gets a steady stream of 15-20 attendees for each meeting, with presentations by faculty roughly doubling that figure. Elise would like to see more involvement from the philosophy department, both in form of giving more talks and being sponsors of events.

One event that has been coordinated that the group got outside funding for—philosophy in general requiring very little funding to be done, was for a trip to the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy conference that was held in Oregon last year. Woodard is quick to state that there is a need for people to take an outside interest in such events and let her or others involved with the society know. She states that because the group has now become reasonably established, “people are perhaps starting to take it for granted. It’s still more in its infancy and needs nurturing. At the beginning it took hours of planning. Now we just need a speaker and a room.” This shift from the excitement of starting up an organization to the more mundane sustaining of it, at least on the logistical side, can often lead to stagnation, but Woodard is quick to stress that they are open to input on what students would like to see done.

Something that was brought up in the past was establishing an undergraduate journal of Philosophy, but the plan sputtered out early on in its development from a lack of interest in anyone taking the reins on the project and making it a reality. This is just one example of what the Philosophical Society could do if somebody were willing to do the work to make it happen. “It would be hard to do something like a film showing for philosophy, but maybe if we got some footage of Saul Kripke giving a lecture.”

The Philosophical Society is co-sponsoring an upcoming event with the German department. @NeinQuarterly, Twitter-famous intellectual, is giving a lecture on November 13 at 7pm in PAB 320.