Connecting with Ancient Greece through the Onassis Fellowship

Over the decades, faculty and students in the Department of Philosophy at The New School for Social Research have earned a reputation for advancing scholarship of contemporary Continental philosophy, especially that of Germany and France. But since 2014, those interested in Ancient Greek philosophy, history, language, and culture have received a tremendous boost thanks to the Onassis Foundation Fellowship. By providing generous funding for several doctoral students as well as a dedicated lecturer, the fellowship is helping emerging scholars access critical sources, develop new interpretations, and draw important connections between ancient and twenty-first century thought.

Simon Critchley, Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy (above right), helped bring the special philanthropic relationship to life. Having worked closely with the Onassis Foundation for nearly a decade, he felt “able to show them the kind of work that our students and faculty are doing and its close relation to ancient Greek thought, [as well as] the importance that learning Greek has to philosophical studies at The New School for Social Research,” he says. “I have been absolutely delighted with the collaboration.”

One of his first acts as fellowship program director was to hire Mirjam Kotwick (above left). Originally from Germany and trained as a philologist, she is creating an academic career that bridges the classics and philosophy. “In my work I strive to connect my background and interest in classics with all of these philosophical questions that I have. That can be institutionally challenging. But right now at The New School, the Onassis Fellowship is really bringing both things together. That’s the perfect, ideal setting for me,” says Kotwick, whose recent research includes a book on the Derveni Papyrus, an ancient Macedonian text, and several papers on Orphic poetry, philological methodology, the textual transmission of Aristotle, and allegorical interpretation in the ancient world.

As the Onassis Lecturer in Ancient Greek Thought and Language, Kotwick serves as both a teacher and an expert guide to undergraduate and graduate students interested in a wide range of topics. Her ancient Greek language classes attract philosophy students as well as curious students from other disciplines. “Just learning a language is different than studying philosophy,” she says. “I really try to keep the interests that my students bring to the class by confronting them with original philosophical texts from as early on as possible.” She also informally advises students whose projects touch on her fields of expertise, working with them to ensure they’ve translated or understood those original texts correctly and sharing in the excitement of discovering new ideas.

Kotwick also leads more intensive, topic-based graduate seminars with titles such as “Death in Ancient Greek Thought,” “Aristotle’s Search for Wisdom,” and “The Ancient Quarrel Between Philosophy and Poetry.” Onassis Fellows and philosophy doctoral students Samuel Yelton and Dora Suarez have found the latter class particularly influential for their academic journeys.

Samuel Yelton, PhD student in Philosophy and Onassis Fellow
PhD candidate Samuel Yelton

An alumnus of St. John’s College and its Great Books program, Yelton chose The New School for Social Research for graduate study because of the school’s specific values, namely “not treating ideas as timeless things, but as objects that have a history and various understandings through time, allowing people to be independent from any dogma in their scholarship.”

For his MA thesis, he examined Book X of The Republic, focusing on Plato’s argument that philosophy is incompatible with poetry and his claim that in the ideal city, poetry ought to be banned. “It’s all about understanding the distinction between form and content, and how an idea’s form can disqualify it from what philosophy is meant to do,” he explains. “Poetry can evade rational criticism, and the seductiveness of its form allows for potentially harmful ideas to get a hold of the soul.”

Now writing his doctoral dissertation, Yelton is diving deeper into this argument by examining a new wave of academic work that ties Greek philosophy more tightly into its broader cultural contours. “Even if Plato posited this quarrel, then there’s still the influences of the surrounding culture, which is largely poetic, as well as the understanding that poetry shouldn’t be understood as an amorphous concept, that there are specific genres [by author]: Homer, Sappho, and Hesiod. Understanding Plato requires that we understand these nuances.”

Suarez came to the U.S. from Uruguay 15 years ago to study modern languages, but unexpectedly fell in love with philosophy. “I feel that we have still not overcome many of the questions that the Greeks were asking,” she says.

Dora Suarez, PhD student in Philosophy and Onassis Fellow
PhD candidate Dora Suarez

In her doctoral dissertation, she is exploring the concept of visibility and its uses within the history of philosophy. “Just as we cannot take Truth and Knowledge for granted we also cannot — and should not —  take for granted what counts as visible or invisible, or to be able to see and/or being seeing,” she says. “My goal is to develop a meticulous philosophical recasting of visibility and its implications, in a way that brings to the fore the ways in which we human beings constantly struggle to resist visibility and to resist through visibility.”

This topic is relevant to both ancient and contemporary concerns, and a recent book on the topic is helping Suarez make those connections. “[In] Andrea Nightingale’s Spectacles of Truth in Classical Greek Philosophy, she describes a transition between wander to wonder, from a vita activa to the vita contemplativa. I became intrigued in thinking about how this change to a kind of seeing that has nothing to do with the eyes and that starts with Plato can be traced to the way we think about visibility today,” Suarez says.

Similarly, other Onassis Fellows are also investigating the historical origins of familiar concepts, such as Justice or Nobility, that are now at the center of contemporary conversations. Teresa Casas, from Spain, is using her dissertation to examine the intersection of theatre and politics both in ancient times and today. Angelica Stathopoulos, from Sweden, is exploring philosophy’s historical relation to passivity within ethics and politics. In each of these cases, Greek philosophy offers insight into how such ideas first entered the stream of philosophy, restoring an important sense of perspective and offering a key to understanding their applications and limits.

More broadly, the Onassis Fellowship and its focused attention on all aspects of ancient thought has not only encouraged the department widen its temporal and geographic scope beyond the contemporary Continental, but helped faculty and students alike renew a commitment to looking past a typical disciplinary distinction between “doing the history of philosophy” and “doing philosophy” to really do it all — and well, too.

Nancy Fraser Is the Newest Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur

Nancy Fraser, Henry A. and Louise Loeb Professor of Political and Social Science, has been named a chevalier de la Légion d’honneur — a knight of the Legion of Honor of France.

This highest reward for outstanding merit, founded by Napoleon in 1802, is given to French nationals and others who have served the country or helped further its values. In Nancy’s case, as noted in her official award letter: “You develop through your many papers a reflection on the major issues facing our contemporary societies that is as philosophic as it is political. Your original feminist thought aims to understand the inequalities of gender from a triple economic, cultural and political perspective. Through your work, you wish to help change society, and to imagine a new one…. France recognizes the breadth of your work, your commitment to promoting French language and thought as well as your cooperation with French and European universities.”

During her tenure at The New School for Social Research, Nancy has developed a longstanding relationship with the French academy. She has served as Blaise Pascal International Research Chair of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales from 2008-2010, and as the International Research Chair in Social Justice at the Collège d’études mondiales of the Foundation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme from 2011-2016.

The Legion of Honor is the latest award Nancy has received this year for her work. She was also awarded the Nessim Habif World Prize, conferred at the University of Geneva on October 12, and the Award for Lifetime Contribution to Critical Scholarship from the Haven Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, to be conferred there on April 11, 2019.

Nancy has published dozens of books and articles on social and political theory, feminist theory, and contemporary French and German thought. Her latest work is Capitalism: A Conversation in Political Theory, co-authored with Rahel Jaeggi, in which the two leading thinkers “show how, throughout its history, various regimes of capitalism have relied on a series of institutional separations between economy and polity, production and social reproduction, and human and non-human nature, periodically readjusting the boundaries between these domains in response to crises and upheavals.”

Join Nancy this summer at the Institute for Critical Social Inquiry’s 2019 Summer Seminars, where she will be leading the Critique of Capitalism seminar.

Transatlantic Exchange: The NSSR-TU Dresden Connection

That a leading expert on fascism and populism should find a second home at a top engineering and technology university seems, at first glance, unlikely.

But a home was exactly what New School for Social Research (NSSR) Professor of History Federico Finchelstein found during a faculty exchange at the Technical University of Dresden (TU Dresden).

“There are strong shared intellectual affinities between TU Dresden and NSSR,” says Finchelstein. “Professor Hans Vorlander and his colleagues, who are the world experts on German populism, have taught me a great deal, and students at Dresden are really interested in these topics.”

That academic compatibility has helped the program flourish and, more recently, evolve into an important transatlantic exchange primarily for students. Each year, TU Dresden graduate students come to New York to take courses and join the NSSR community in conferences and more, while advanced NSSR doctoral students travel to Dresden to teach a compressed two-week course to undergraduate and MA students.

The exchange program was started by New School Board of Trustees member Henry Arnhold. Born and raised in Dresden, his grandfather and father had served as honorary senators at the university — until the family fled Germany for New York in 1937.

“After the reunification in 1990, I returned to my former hometown,”  he remembered. This historic occasion prompted Arnhold to create a fertile new connection between his birthplace and his adopted hometown of New York. “Since we do not believe in collective guilt and I like to build bridges, I proposed an exchange program in the social sciences, supporting three TU Dresden graduate students at The New School yearly.” The first group arrived in 1992 and included “young historian Prof. Dr. Simone Laessig, who is today the head of the German Historic Institute in Washington, DC,” which has since collaborated with The New School’s Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility.

Research Matters spoke with NSSR’s most recent exchange participants: Randi Irwin, a PhD candidate in Anthropology, and Miguel Paley, a PhD candidate in Philosophy. Chosen for their strong teaching records as well as faculty commendations on their research, they have served as visiting lecturers in the political theory department at TU Dresden, focusing on migration

Irwin’s research centers on the plight of Sahrawi refugees in Algeria. Displaced from their homeland in Western Sahara, the refugee community has retained a state structure that manages the refugee camps, providing some services and dealing with governance issues in preparation for the day when Western Sahara can regain its independence. This research, as well as Irwin’s previous coursework at NSSR, formed the basis for her Dresden course syllabus.

PhD candidate Randi Irwin

“I taught a survey on postcolonialism and decolonization. I had one graduate student, and the rest were senior-level undergraduates. They were all from philosophy, political theory, and a few from international affairs. Anthropology was something they were quite new to.” Irwin explained that her students seemed eager to engage with the course topics from an anthropological perspective. “They never had classes on gender, they never had classes on race or colonialism, so I ended up with a bunch of students who were really interested in these ideas and for the most part didn’t have access to [them],” she said. “They were really theoretically sophisticated…[but] pretty new to applying theory within a given context,” such as the political question of the aftereffects of colonial intervention.

To aid their learning, Irwin created assignments that she described as “critiques of the construction of the other, critiques of the commodification of knowledge as it relates to the colony. [We] moved through some concepts like knowledge-creation and disciplining and looked at how the political project of colonialism worked,  then moved to considering how that project might remain in place today.”

PhD candidate Miguel Paley

Meanwhile, Paley taught an interdisciplinary class on alienation and ideology. “It aimed at presenting students with readings not always studied in political theory courses, including things like design theory and phenomenology,” which he’s worked on during his time at NSSR.

Paley noted that while the mostly MA students were “from all different disciplines,” they were enthusiastic and engaged with the topic, which they studied intensely. “The class only lasted for two weeks but our time was equivalent to a semester, so we spent 14 hours inside the classroom during that week,” he says. Despite the long hours, he says the students were great. “It was really fun to work with them, and the Dresden faculty were very generous and very welcoming. I really loved it!”

NSSR Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs Tsuya Yee sees the effects of the program from a wider perspective. “The exchange creates great teaching opportunities for our students” to work with new and different student populations being educated in different theoretical approaches, she said.

Of course, the benefits of the exchange are felt in New York as well sometimes in unexpected ways. “Some TU Dresden students who come to study at NSSR apply to stay on as full-time students here. It’s a prestigious visiting lecturer position that… allows students to develop their pedagogical and course planning skills in an international setting, all while receiving a healthy stipend and and having their costs covered,” Yee said.

While the program has evolved greatly since its inception years ago, the energy of in-person intellectual and cultural exchange continues enriching both research and relationships. It is what keeps students like Irwin and Paley participating and what keeps faculty like Finchelstein returning year after year and hopefully for years to come.

Trump as History

In the months leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, The New School for Social Research Professor of History Oz Frankel proposed a new course named simply “Trump as History.” It’s quickly become one of the department’s most popular courses among Eugene Lang undergraduates. Research Matters spoke with Professor Frankel about how he developed the class amid one of the most shocking electoral upsets in history.

“I was convinced it would never happen,” says Frankel, reflecting on the unexpected victory, “and [U.S. President Donald] Trump would be consigned to history” Hence the history course. Needless to say, things turned out differently. But while its initial framework had to change, the course took on a new purpose and significance.

The contemporaneous nature of the subject presents interesting challenges for a historian. “The problem is that Trump is a current event, he is a work in progress,” explains Frankel. This gives rise to a crucial methodological question: “Perhaps it’s too early to historicize him?” Instead, Frankel harnesses that very lack of historical perspective to demonstrate to students the value of thinking historically.

“I actually make the argument that the media is already thinking of Trump historically, but perhaps in the wrong ways,” Frankel says. The most popular of those ways is drawing historical analogies. “Trump is like…insert your preferred historical figure here. There are continual attempts to find some historical precedent, from Richard Nixon to Pat Buchanan to PT Barnum,” he explains. “There was also a drive to dig up — especially before the election — prophecies from the past that somehow predicted the rise of Trump, like the Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America, Richard Rorty’s 1998 book Achieving Our Country, or that Carl Sagan quote.”

Frankel sees these approaches as symptoms of a state of crisis and public bewilderment that pushes society to look to the past in order to grapple with the present. However, these efforts rely on a narrow conception of history and miss the important structural and historical roots of Trumpism. “Analogies are accessible, but they often reduce history to a succession of personalities. I address these popular comparisons with my students and we discuss why they constitute problematic ways to engage the past.”

In other words, bigger questions of how we think about history today, and what kind of historical consciousness is cultivated among the public, guide the course. These questions concern popular perceptions of history as well as “the kind of historical imagination propelling people like [Steve] Bannon or Stephen Miller” and “the influence in these two cases of [early 20th-century German philosophe Oswald] Spengler, with his organic and cyclical conception of history. It’s a very pessimistic, reactionary view.”

Frankel encourages his students to move past Trump as an individual and to think of Trumpism as a historical and political phenomenon. “Trump is a tool for thinking about patterns of American history we didn’t pay much attention to in the early part of the 21st century.” Specifically, Frankel guides students to narrow in on “the history of American populism, of racism, anti-immigrant sentiment and its historicity, issues of masculinity, politics and spectacle, as well as the subject-position of the businessman as a cultural hero. We also have the history of ‘fake news.’” Weaving these historical threads together allows the students to map “what was in the DNA of American democracy that was conducive to something like Trumpism.”

Drawing on a variety of sources, including journalistic articles, academic publications, films, and blogs, Frankel leads students through an exploration of each of the key themes that contribute to Trumpism such as populism. “During the election, Bernie [Sanders] and Trump were both being labeled as populists,” Frankel recalls. “In class, we explore the long historical arch of populism in U.S. history, which brings us to late 20th century, the Tea Party, current reflections on the idea of the white working class and the question of why people are ostensibly voting against their material interests.” Another theme is racial dynamics, especially the often ever-defensive identities congealing around whiteness. Frankel comments, “Why do whites feel threatened? Whiteness is usually ‘transparent,’ but when whites feel threatened, then they become white. There is along thread of paranoia and fear in American history.”

Related concerns about social and cultural decline — cross political divisions. Frankel assigns his students George Packer’s The Unwinding (2013), which weaves together short biographies that document familiar themes of de-industrialization, the demise of institutions, the unraveling of the American social fabric, and the ascendance of “organized money.” While the book’s thesis comes from the political Left, it also overlaps with Bannon’s bleak view of the trajectory of American history, encouraging students to think beyond entrenched political distinctions.

In addition to considering historical continuities, Frankel encourages his student to consider what is new and unprecedented about the Trump moment in American political life. While Trump’s seemingly improbable political victories throughout 2016 could be cast as a series of flukes that might have ended very differently, they also show us the importance of accidents and of individual agency in history. “Trump certainly has the capacity of creating a new political reality; he already took over the Republic party and introduced new dynamics into the American public sphere.”

Trump is titillating, and students — many of whom were not necessarily interested in history before — are eager to grapple with these issues, including their own role in the current political moment. Frankel insists upon it, remarking, “I ask students to reflect on our complicity in the Trump phenomenon, the near-addiction that we have all developed to Trump, something that’s become so ingrained in our daily existence.” And, for many, the very reason they signed up for the class.

NSSR Mourns the Loss of Professor Jeremy Safran

The entire New School community is shocked and saddened by the tragic death of Jeremy Safran, New School for Social Research psychology professor, former Department of Psychology co-chair, and an internationally renowned psychotherapist. This heartfelt tribute by Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology Jeffrey C. Goldfarb originally appeared in Public Seminar on May 8, 2018 and is reprinted here with permission.

This is a very sad day at The New School for Social Research and at Public Seminar. Jeremy Safran, a distinguished professor in our Psychology Department and a senior editor of Public Seminar, a dear colleague and friend to many of us, was murdered yesterday in his Brooklyn home. We are in shock, as we are trying to respond.

This morning, a community gathering was called by our dean, Will Milberg. Colleagues, administrators, and most movingly, Jeremy’s students visibly stricken with grief, tried to console each other.

An announcement was made by the co-chairs of the Psychology Department, Bill Hirst and Howard Steele (who also happens to be Jeremy’s first cousin):

“As most of you know, Jeremy Safran was brutally murdered yesterday. Jeremy’s contributions to the Department and to the field of Psychotherapy Research cannot be underestimated. He joined the New School faculty in 1993, shortly after the APA had placed the Clinical Psychology Program on probation. He quickly found himself Director of Clinical Studies and later Chair of the Department, and with characteristic energy and determination, worked not only to move the Clinical Psychology Program to full accreditation, but to make it the vibrant, respected program it is today. During this time period, he established a training facility at Beth Israel Medical Center, the low-cost New School Psychotherapy Research Program, and the Sándor Ferenczi Center. He was a brilliant mentor to many students and an inspired instructor.

Outside the New School, Jeremy’s intellectual curiosity and broadminded approach to all things psychological held him in good stead. He was an expert in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy before he joined forces with Les Greenberg to provide the theoretical foundations for Emotion-Focused Therapy. He was also a preeminent psychotherapy researcher, studying the processes underlying rupture and repair in therapeutic alliances. He wrote or edited eight books and a large number of articles and chapters. He also developed for the APA a series of training DVDs. In recognition of his brilliant contributions, the Society for Psychotherapy Research awarded him their Distinguished Research Career Award and Division 39 of the APA honored him with the Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychotherapy Research. He also served as President of the International Association for Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. Jeremy’s contributions did not end with his envelope-pushing research on psychotherapy or his knack for decisive institution building. He also wrote insightfully about Buddhism and psychoanalysis and on critical approaches to Psychology. In addition to his faculty position at the New School, he was also on the faculty of New York University Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis.

We want to extend our condolences to Jeremy’s wife, Jenny, and his two children, Ayla and Ellie. We will miss him.”

Jeremy appeared on Public Seminar as a public intellectual. He was an active member of our team from the very beginning. He took part in and informed our deliberations, as we launched and developed our venture in innovative publishing. He realized in his posts our goals: drawing upon his expertise, he addressed the non-expert public (including me) about “enduring problems of the human condition, responding to the pressing issues of the day.” He wrote many pieces and solicited even more from colleagues from around the world, and students close to home. He wrote one of our most popular posts, on the rise, fall and possible resurrection of psychoanalysis in the United States, “Who’s Afraid of Sigmund Freud?” I love the piece because it has been very popular and is also excellent. He critically reported on psychology’s involvement in America’s torture regime: “Psychology and Torture.” A few weeks ago he wrote “Authenticity American Style,” on “the meaning of authenticity in the era of “reality show” politics.” He combined sober professional judgment, with intellectual playfulness.

On a personal note: I knew Jeremy as a kind person, a gentle-man, also a bit forgetful, as am I. Although we were not intimate friends, we were close colleagues. I admired him for his commitments: mental health, personal wellbeing and the public good were not simply words for him. We worked together with mutual respect. I enjoyed him as a person. Last Thursday, we had our last monthly Senior Editors’ meeting for this academic year. He was late. I told my colleagues I thought this meant he wouldn’t be coming. When he arrived, I pointed this out to him. Since Public Seminar and The New School’s Publishing Initiative have moved up to their new digs, before each meeting, I received a note from Jeremy asking me to remind him where the meeting would be held. Last week, he came without asking.

An additional note from Ali Shames–Dawson, an important editor on our team:

“I am inclined just to add how much he brought dedicated students to Public Seminar — I am here because he insisted that we must speak immediately one day, my first ever Jeremy at-home phone call, and he excitedly told me of the opportunity to be an editorial fellow, back in 2015. Since then, he has solicited and supported a wealth of student writing and PS involvement, as was his way. His deep dedication to spreading his commitments, particularly to critical intellectual engagement beyond the boundaries of disciplinary psychology and in socially engaged scholarship, and involving students in meaningful projects is something I know everyone who reads this who knew him will appreciate and resonate with.”