A Conversation on Philosophy and a Conference on Libraries

December 25, 2013
Christopher Celenza and Carlin Romano
Thomas Hendrickson and Irene San Pietro
Timothy Kirchner
Matthew Nicholls
Stephanie Ann Frampton
Carlin Romano
Patrick Baker and Thomas Hendrickson
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Last week the Academy brought a reflective close to the year 2013 with a final string of events. As part of the Academy’s continuing Conversations That Matter series, Carlin Romano joined Director Christopher Celenza, FAAR’94, last Wednesday for a discussion about the nature of philosophy and the role of the philosopher in American society. In the two days following the Academy hosted an international conference on “Libraries, Lives and the Organization of Knowledge in the Pre-Modern World,” which brought together scholars from five countries to study the oft-neglected connection between libraries and lives. The conference was organized and funded in part by the Centre for Neoplatonic Virtue Ethics at the University of Copenhagen.

Carlin Romano is a cultural critic and author whose essays and articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, The Village Voice, The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Oxford Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, and elsewhere. He has been the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, an Eisenhower Fellowship and is an ongoing elected Fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities. Romano joined audiences at the American Academy to discuss elements addressed in his most recent book, America the Philosophical (2012). Romano takes a broad view of philosophy as the search for a way of life and in this respect he argues that the United States has as a preeminently philosophical culture. This Conversations That Matter event was co-sponsored by John Cabot University.

The following morning, conference participants gathered at the Academy to be welcomed by Director Christopher Celenza, FAAR’94, and to hear a total of fifteen papers over the course of the following days. Speakers explored the role of the library in shaping traditions of knowledge, changing attitudes towards knowledge production, and the changing content of “learnedness” itself. Far from competing with systematic philosophy, the biographical tradition offered the earliest system of organizing knowledge. The kind of personal detail that would later be relegated to gossip once provided the basis for insights embedded in the lives of authors. The Lives or Vitae of great men produced concepts of the library and archive from antiquity to the Renaissance in which there was not only no “death of the author,” but the texts needed their authors and readers in very direct ways.

It has been said that one of the ways pre-modernity was different from modernity is that while “the truth” as we seek and cite it existed, it also co-existed with numerous other truths. The links between knowledge and the biography of authors, and between texts and knowledge systems for a long time gave knowledge a human voice and human fallibility: texts were something to both act on and be acted upon. This understanding of reading, writing and collecting as a continual and very human work in progress meant that knowledge work and knowledge-seeking was as much a destructive as a creative process, and may have inhibited the growth of overarching impersonal systems of knowledge.

This year’s schedule of events thus concluded with reflections upon the changing character of two academic keystones. The discipline of philosophy and the institution of the library lie at the heart of Western intellectual history and clearly continue to have powerful contemporary significance, but, as all systems of human knowledge, they are regularly subjected to reinvention and reinterpretation.