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Philosophy department forms VAMP group to foster exploration of modern philosophy

Posted by on Tuesday, December 8, 2020 in News Story.

Emanuele Costa standing in front of a brick wall
Department of Philosophy visiting scholar Emanuele Costa

According to Department of Philosophy visiting scholar Emanuele Costa, people often see modern philosophy as ancient history. But the discipline, which covers the 1500s-1800s, is highly relevant to both today’s scholars and the public at large.

“Modern European and American philosophers shaped the Western world as it is now,” said Costa, who will join the Philosophy faculty as an assistant professor in fall 2021. “In many senses, concepts of democracy, human rights, and the ‘thinking being’ were all elaborated in that period. Being able to access the works of these philosophers is really important for understanding the world we live in.”

That’s why Costa, together with Philosophy professors Karen Ng and Idit Dobbs-Weinstein, recently created the Vanderbilt Modern Philosophy Group: to encourage exploration of and collaboration around the subject. The group will hold its first online seminar, featuring Susan James, on Wednesday, December 9. James, who is a philosophy professor at Birkbeck College-University of London and a fellow of the British Academy, will speak on the topic “Spinoza on Animal Species.”

Over a Zoom interview, Costa answered questions about his interest in modern philosophy, the group’s creation, and where the Philosophy department hopes to take the program.

Q: What led you to study philosophy?

A: It’s pretty much because of my curiosity and trust in the human potential to understand the world. I was always someone who was very uncomfortable with the answer “That’s all you need to know.” I don’t think we ever know all that we need to know, and I think philosophy is one of the best keys we have to unlock what we feel we don’t have access to.

Q: Why did you decide to create VAMP?

A: I realized that the Vanderbilt Philosophy department has a number of specialists who converge on modern philosophy. We have faculty who specialize in modern philosophers, like Hegel and Kant, and some who specialize in other subjects, like philosophy of religion and medieval philosophy, but whose interests touch on modern philosophy. I really wanted to tap into that potential, but all the [academic] conferences were canceled this year due to the pandemic. So I thought, “Let’s turn this obstacle into an opportunity and bring it online.” Now we can reach places and people that we wouldn’t be connecting with otherwise.

Graphic showing a photo of Susan James and the text "The Vanderbilt Modern Philosophy Group is proud to present its inaugural lecture: Spinoza on Animal Species, Susan James, Professor of Philosophy, Birkbeck College, University of London, December 9th, 1:00 pm Central Standard Time"
VAMP’s first online seminar will feature philosophy professor Susan James, of Birkbeck College-University of London and the British Academy. Contact Emanuele Costa (emanuele.costa@vanderbilt.edu) to register.

Q: Whom do you hope to reach?

A: We started connecting with specialists first, but then we realized we had something a lot more complex on our hands. Some of the modern philosophers, like Spinoza and Descartes, are also popular figures in pop culture. We already have involvement from scholars all over the world, but we also have a good group of laypeople—individuals who don’t do philosophy professionally but are interested in the subject.

Q: What are you most excited about?

A: Thanks to the department’s reputation, we can attract some amazing speakers to share their knowledge with us. We also have an opportunity to surface people and projects that would otherwise stay hidden. For example, we’ve received some very interesting proposals on philosophers who are not often discussed, and we have a very diverse group of speakers applying. I’m also excited about the group connecting people who otherwise would not have met: connecting young scholars with experienced ones, and connecting people across national boundaries. We’ve already had interest from as far away as Russia, Myanmar, and Nigeria.

Q: Where do you hope this will go?

A: I envision this as being a collective of many different kinds of events. Right now, we’re limited to online seminars because of the pandemic, but eventually I would like to have events like writing workshops and movie screenings to create value for our undergraduates. There are a lot of contemporary movies that are based on ideas set forth in modern philosophy.

VAMP’s December 9 seminar is open to the public, but attendees should contact Costa to register. The group is also currently accepting abstracts for future seminars. Visit the group’s webpage for more information.

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