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.

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.