Social Research on Plagues

The journal’s update of 1988’s “In Time of Plague” examines the human history of pandemics and what it means for the current moment

“After decades of dividing our time between apocalyptic fears of nuclear holocaust and private fears of personal ruin, we now face a threat that is profoundly social, requiring a public, community response. Most of us until recently have assumed, perhaps without thinking, that the number of life-threatening infectious diseases was finite, soon to be cured and prevented by medical science…. Now it appears that this idea—that we stand outside our own history, that we, unlike our forebears, are immune to widespread medical disasters—is very doubtful.” 

This description feels very poignant in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Yet these are the words Arien Mack used to introduce the Fall 1988 issue of Social Research, which addressed the HIV/AIDS crisis. Called “In Time of Plague,” the special issue followed the journal’s first-ever public conference, “In Time of Plague: The History and Social Consequences of Lethal Epidemic Disease.” Now, more than 30 years later, Social Research is publishing a new issue with the same title this summer — on COVID-19.

NSSR’s Flagship Journal

Social Research has been a part of The New School for Social Research since its beginning,” Mack says. Founded as an international quarterly in 1934, one year after The New School’s first president created the University in Exile as a refuge for scholars forced to flee Hitler’s Europe, Social Research aimed to create a public voice for the growing university. The flagship NSSR journal now operates in partnership with the school’s Center for Public Scholarship (CPS), founded and directed by Mack, which is dedicated to promoting “free inquiry and public discussion, bringing the best scholarship in and outside of the academy to bear on the critical and contested issues of our times.”

Arien Mack, Alfred and Monette Marrow Professor of Psychology, became editor of Social Research in 1970. Under her leadership, Social Research pivoted to thematic issues, and from 1988 onward paired some of them with large public conferences that explore current, pressing social issues in their historical contexts. Past issues have looked at such complex concepts as loyalty, fairness, and unknowability, as well as more focused subjects like the future of Cuba and transitions to and then from democracy. As Mack said in a 2020 Public Seminar interview with Jim Miller, Professor of Politics and Liberal Studies and Director of the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism program, Had I been in any other university, I would have been [only an experimental] psychologist. I would have published, probably more academic research. But I would not have had the kind of extraordinary run of intellectual fun that [editing] Social Research has offered me.”

“We held our first funded conference at a moment where there was an enormous amount of hysteria around the HIV-AIDS crisis,” Mack says of the program, whose proceedings were published in the 1988 “In Time of the Plague” issue. Her intention in organizing the conference was to examine the epidemic in light of the long human history of plagues, with the goal of fostering open dialogue among scholars and scientists, combating misinformation around AIDS, and offering a more effective and nuanced public response. 

The Right Time to Republish

“Pandemics and plagues have been with us since the beginning of time,” Mack continues. “There are things we have learned and things we have ignored. It occurred to us that this was a great moment to republish this issue and invite authors, some who contributed to the first issue and some new contributors, to comment on the new pandemic.” 

Cara Schlesinger, Managing Editor of Social Research, underscores this point. “One of the important takeaways from this issue,” she says, “is that there were lessons that were learned during the AIDS crisis and lessons that were forgotten… and when we forget history, we risk repeating it. Almost every event we [at Social Research] have done has addressed that idea in some way and tried to bring the past to bear on the present. Unfortunately, this time the past we are reminded of is very recent. Despite all of the powers and pressures working against that memory, maybe this time we will do a little better at remembering.”

The COVID-19 edition of In Time of Plague is divided into two sections. The new essays that comprise the first section navigate the moral dilemmas, inequalities, and misinformation that shadow the COVID-19 pandemic, drawing comparisons to the AIDS crisis. The second section republishes the complete collection of original papers. Contributors of both the original and new material were drawn from across disciplines.

Charles Rosenberg, Emeritus Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, wrote a paper in 1988 on the definition of disease as well as a new piece on shaping a pandemic narrative. Willam Foege, former executive director of the Carter Center and famed epidemiologist, originally published “Plagues: Perceptions of Risk and Social Responses” and has now contributed an essay entitled “Plague Revisited.” New contributors include Teresa Ghilarducci, NSSR’s Schwartz Professor of Economics and Policy Analysis and director of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, with “When Economists Take a Back Seat to Virologists”; William Hirst, NSSR’s Malcolm B. Smith Professor of Psychology, on how the pandemic will be remembered; Mariano Aguirre, advisor to the Human Rights Institute, on the connections between inequality and the impacts of COVID-19; and Mary T. Bassett, former commissioner of health for New York City, who explores how “epidemics track along the fissures of our society, exacting the highest toll among the marginalized, discriminated, and excluded.”

Join a Webinar

The Center for Public Scholarship will also be holding a two-part public webinar series to launch the new edition of In Time of Plague. See more information and register here.

The first panel, “Inequalities and Plague,” will be held Wednesday, August 5, 12:30-2:00 p.m. EDT. Panelists include Ghilarducci, Aguirre, and Bassett, as well as Ahmed Bawa, Chief Executive Officer of Universities South Africa. 

The second panel, “Comparing Plagues: AIDS and COVID-19,” will be held Wednesday,  August 12, 12:30-2:00 p.m. EDT and will be moderated by Ron Bayer, elected member of the Institute of Medicine of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Panelists include Foege; Ruth Macklin, Distinguished University Professor Emerita of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine; Gerald Oppenheimer, Professor of Clinical Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University; and David A. J. Richards, Edwin D. Webb Professor of Law at New York University. 

Since its first issue, Social Research has aimed to preserve the founding ideals of The New School for Social Research and to make intellectual inquiry around social and political issues more accessible for the New York community and beyond. In the introduction of this new issue, Mack writes, “It is my hope that by reissuing our 1988 issue, with new comments by experts on how the current COVID-19 pandemic resembles and differs from the AIDS epidemic, we will once again help our readers better understand what is happening now and what we might expect.” 

New Social Philosophy Prize Awards Challenges to Canon

A collaboration between NSSR and Vanderbilt reflects the evolving field of social philosophy

Within the broader field of philosophy, an increased focus on social thought has led to an upsurge of interest in critical theories of race, gender, and class. In response, a group of faculty and students at The New School for Social Research (NSSR) and Vanderbilt University — including Alice Crary, University Distinguished Professor at NSSR, and Matthew Congdon, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt and NSSR Philosophy PhD 2014 alumnus — have created the Prize for Distinguished Achievement in Social Philosophy, which seeks to recognize “groundbreaking, courageous, critical work” in the field. 

The inaugural recipient of the biennial prize is Robert Gooding-Williams, M. Moran West/Black Alumni Council Professor of African-American Studies, Professor of Philosophy and of African American and African Diaspora Studies at Columbia University.  

Research Matters sat down digitally with Crary, Congdon, and Gooding-Williams to talk about social philosophy and its history at The New School, as well as what this award represents.

Collaborating for Visibility in the Field

Crary and Congdon’s collaboration began when Crary served as Congdon’s PhD advisor in NSSR’s Philosophy department. Crary, who has written extensively on ethics, was a natural fit as a mentor for Congdon, whose research focuses on moral psychology and the intersections of ethics and epistemology. 

The two continue to talk often, and in 2019 ran a successful workshop at Vanderbilt on social visibility; topics included the visibility of racism in the United States, the critical significance of art and aesthetic experiences, and the epistemology of ideology critique. They met for coffee the day after the workshop to debrief and both were pleased with how the presentations had gone. That was what led to the idea of further collaboration.

“Partly we were interested in the significance of the fact that, in Anglo-American circles, the idea of social philosophy is a relative newcomer,” says Crary. “We wanted to look afresh at what it means to explore specifically social thought and criticism. What we were doing in pulling together the original workshop was  identifying a set of exciting philosophers and political theorists who are working across intellectual traditions not only in theorizing about these things but also in bringing theory to bear on practice.”

They felt momentum growing in the field and wanted to turn their one-time effort into something more sustained. Crary and Congdon developed the Prize for Distinguished Achievement in Social Philosophy and formed a prize committee, which includes Karen Ng, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt and an NSSR Philosophy PhD 2013 alum; Dora Suarez, a current NSSR Philosophy PhD student; Daniel Rodriguez-Navas, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at NSSR; and Eric MacPhail, a current Vanderbilt Philosophy PhD student and an NSSR Philosophy MA 2016 alum.

It makes sense that NSSR is so strongly represented on the committee. The field of social philosophy has strong connections to intellectual traditions represented at The New School since the 1930s, in particular Critical Theory. So while analytic philosophers have increasingly turned to social philosophy in the past 20 years, “these conversations were happening at The New School many decades earlier,” Congdon says. Here, “philosophy is looked at as a distinctively social phenomenon. How inhabiting shared forms of life shapes one’s vision and perception of that world, and shapes what objects are actually in that world. Or how our shared history shapes one’s perception of that world…. That was something that was just in the air at The New School from the beginning; to study just about any philosophical problem was already to want to situate it in a kind of a social context.” Congdon also found the intellectual climate of The New School to include a shared sense of political activism, with students often involved in community organizing and political events on and outside of campus.

Vanderbilt also has a pluralistic Philosophy department, which Crary says is not something to be taken for granted. “Here pluralism means something like — we’re not going to be factional and say the only legitimate kind of philosophy is the kind that’s being practiced in the Anglo-American world, or is in the European philosophical scene, or elsewhere. We both think that this kind of open-mindedness is decisive for philosophizing that is productively engaged with the world and guided by a commitment to social justice. It’s rarer than you would think.”

Changing Who Gets to Be a Philosopher

The first prize recipient, Robert Gooding-Williams, has been instrumental in legitimizing social philosophy.  

Challenging the philosophy canon since the 1980s, Gooding-Williams has helped make discussions about race a decisive area for philosophical study — one now recognized by the American Philosophical Association. As a historian of African-American philosophy and a scholar of W.E.B. Dubois, Gooding-Williams has questioned the exclusion of Dubois, Booker T. Washington, and Frederick Douglass from consideration as prominent political philosophers. 

“My contributions to social philosophy have largely concerned the diagnosis of social problems, specifically racism and white supremacy,” Gooding-Williams says, as well as “the analyses and political-philosophical responses to racism and white supremacy in the history of African American political thought.”

His essay collection, Look, A Negro! Philosophical Essays on Race, Culture and Politics (Routledge, 2005), explores the concept of Black identity, the nature of Black political solidarity, the significance of Afro-centrism for American democracy, and the impact of racial ideology on aesthetic judgment, while In the Shadow of Du Bois (Harvard University Press, 2011) analyzes Afro-Modern political thought in the U.S. In a forthcoming paper, Gooding-Williams builds on other philosophers’ recent efforts to understand racial domination in terms of practices and the concepts that constitute them; an excerpt of that paper revisits the Ferguson Report and how anti-Black concepts influence police practices.

“He is doing great historical work and also telling a story about what good political philosophy is.  He leads us to see clearly that the exclusion of Du Bois and others is a function of racism,” Crary says. “His work is incredibly important and powerful.”

Congdon describes the courageousness in Gooding-Williams’ methodology: “His contribution [is] basically creating and legitimizing whole areas of philosophy that had been delegitimized or not recognized as important.”

Crary and Congdon had planned to make an occasion of the first prize, honoring Gooding-Williams as well as organizing a public lecture featuring prominent philosophers and social theorists, and recognizing graduate students with the NSSR-Vanderbilt Graduate Student Prize in Social Philosophy. Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, they are monitoring the situation and will make a decision about the event in the coming months, making the health and well-being of the event’s participants a top priority. More information, as well as the organizers’ full congratulatory message to Gooding-Williams, can be found on the NSSR website.  

Photo Credits: Left: Matthew Congdon and Alice Crary at a philosophy conference in Paris, 2019; Right: Robert Gooding-Williams via American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2018.

NSSR Welcomes Lillian Polanco-Roman to Psychology Department

The new assistant professor brings expertise on mental health disparities in at-risk populations

Lillian Polanco-Roman joins the Psychology department faculty at The New School for Social Research (NSSR) in Fall 2020 as an Assistant Professor of Psychology. With a background as a clinical psychologist, Polanco-Roman studies how cultural experiences can impact psychopathology, especially in racial minorities and immigrant youth populations. Specifically, her research tackles demographic disparities in suicidal ideation and behaviors in youth. 

Research Matters sat down (digitally) with Polanco-Roman to discuss her research, what drew her to the work, and what she’s looking forward to doing at NSSR.

Elevating ‘Social Research’

“I’m interested in the ‘social research’ part of The New School,” Polanco-Roman says. “Part of its mission includes looking at social justice, social and environmental factors, and how that might impact development. These ideas play a huge role in my research. This focus is something that really aligns with me, with research, with my passion.”

Polanco-Roman studies the ‘casualties of racism’ and how racial and ethnic discrimination influences suicidal thoughts and behaviors in minority emerging adults. Culturally related experiences are rarely analyzed in risk assessment for suicide, and she hopes to better understand and highlight the relationships between ethnic identity and depressive symptoms. 

Her path to an academic career grew out of her roots right here in New York City. A first-generation college student born and raised in Brooklyn, Polanco-Roman received a BS in Psychology from Fordham University, an MA in Psychology from Hunter College — where she also taught the subject — and her PhD from the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. She is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Columbia University in the New York State Psychiatric Institute, and has counseled in a clinical setting.

Her upbringing played a strong role in shaping her scholarly interests. “Studying and working here made a lot of sense given the population I’m interested in working with, which is ethnic minority youth and immigrant youth,” she says. “They are well represented in New York City and it’s what drew me to this work. I want to give back to my community.”

During her time at CUNY, Polanco-Roman pieced together her own program of study, first finding faculty studying suicide risk in adolescence. She then connected with a professor who specialized in the impact of racial discrimination on psychopathology. “Working with both of them, I was able to create essentially a tailored programmed where I was looking at cultural experiences of suicide risk and youth by combining these two.” 

While forging her own specialized path of study, Polanco-Roman began to translate her research into real-life suicide prevention and minority youth support. While working in the Counseling Services Center at John Jay College, she co-facilitated a group for college students with chronic depression and suicidal ideation that focused on healthy coping strategies. As a training therapist at City College, she also conducted long-term individual psychotherapy in English and Spanish for children and adults at a community-based mental health clinic.

Polanco-Roman is a member of the Youth Suicide Research Consortium, an interdisciplinary network of researchers that aims to improve research on youth suicidal behavior, suicide prevention, and treatment, and to increase research on suicide among underrepresented populations of youth. Her work — which has been published in Journal of Youth and Adolescence; Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy; Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, and other leading psychology journals — has helped illuminate the need for psychologists to account for experiences of ethnic discrimination as a potential source of psychological distress in diagnosing and treating suicidal behavior. 

Looking Ahead to Fall 2020

Finding and creating community within larger urban settings is a key part of Polanco-Roman’s life, and it’s also what’s attracted her to The New School and NSSR. City campuses are like a  “microcosm of the larger New York City,” she says. “It’s kind of like this dual identity component. I like the small feel within this larger environment. I find it to be more intimate and there’s a lot more learning that can go on there, and stronger connections that can be made.”

These connections can be critical for graduate students. As Polanco-Roman explains, the city setting provides ample opportunities for Psychology MA and PhD students to develop their concentrations. “Whatever one can imagine that they want to study or learn or train in, they can find it here.”

Polanco-Roman looks forward to building on her research with these resources, and collaborating with other NSSR faculty. 

She finds herself drawn to the work of Wendy D’Andrea, Associate Professor of Psychology, who runs the Trauma and Affective Psychophysiology Lab. “I’m interested in learning more about the relationship between how traumatic experiences, particularly early childhood experiences, might impact risk for suicide later into adolescence, maybe even young adulthood,” Polanco-Roman says. 

Curious about the potential interplay of traumatic experiences, attachment theory, and risk for suicide, Polanco-Roman is also drawn to the work of Howard Steele and Miriam Steele, both Professors of Psychology and co-directors of the Center for Attachment Research

Polanco-Roman is scheduled to teach courses like Research Methods in the fall, which provides hands-on experience in designing, running, and reporting psychology experiments.

Although academia at large has and continues to make major adjustments to learning due to COVID-19, Polanco-Roman is ready to adapt and be flexible in her first semester at NSSR, using the global pandemic affecting cities and communities as a teaching moment.

“Regardless of using distance learning or being in the classroom, I’m excited to start and I’m excited to work with my new NSSR family, faculty, and students, and make new connections,” she says.

Integrative PhD Fellowship Unites Design and the Humanistic Social Sciences

On a Tuesday afternoon class in April, Sociology PhD student Zoe Carey (above, right) was recounting a recent conference she had attended — standard talk for graduate students. But Carey hadn’t been at a sociology summit; rather, she had traveled to a gathering of the International Association for Chiefs of Police, where she listened to high-level law enforcement leaders discuss their strategies for combating crime, and tech developers present the newest data-focused software, such as Palantir, that helps predict future crime patterns.

That software is what most interests Carey and her classmates in “Thinking Through Interfaces,” an interdisciplinary seminar that examines what interfaces — the points where systems or subjects meet and interact — are, how they work, and how they shape our lives, as well as the pressing social and political issues surrounding them. 

“Usually only designers think about interfaces,” says Associate Professor of Philosophy Zed Adams, who co-created and co-taught the class with Professor of Anthropology Shannon Mattern. Both professors approach the visual from different perspectives; while Mattern explores urban intelligences and maps, Adams focuses on architectural history and the built environment. In developing a syllabus aimed at helping social science students build interdisciplinary muscle, they incorporated texts from disability studies to media studies, and applied scholarship from human-computer interaction to information studies.

This seminar is part of the Integrative PhD Program, made possible by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The program supports NSSR doctoral students looking to combine their humanistic social science backgrounds with training in concepts and methodological approaches to data visualization, graphic design, coding, and digital media

Integrative PhD students are required to take a small collaborative seminar, like Thinking Through Interfaces, that is co-taught by one professor from NSSR’s social sciences departments and another from design or digital media, generally from The New School’s Parsons School of Design and the Schools of Public Engagement. They’re also required to take a course completely outside of NSSR; most choose to study data visualization or cartography.

Learning from professors with complementary skills means Integrative PhD students can become fluent in the full range of qualitative and quantitative methods as well as design thinking, and can better analyze the digital dimensions of political and social movements, media, culture, identity, and other topics critical to the humanistic social sciences.

“I think that for younger people, our graduate students, that combination of skills is within their reach,” says University in Exile Professor of Sociology Robin Wagner-Pacifici (above left), co-director and co-founder of the Integrative PhD. “They don’t see that they have to decide, ‘I’m in one camp or another’, which was more or less the case when I was coming up as a young scholar.” In other words, it’s less “Are you qualitative or quantitative?” and more “In what ways are you combining methodologies?”

Birth of an Idea

Wagner-Pacifici became interested in interdisciplinary study about 13 years ago, as she worked with two fellow sociologists to examine President George W. Bush’s National Security Strategy Report. The relationship was complementary; Wagner-Pacifici had strong close reading skills while her collaborators were experts in network analysis and formal modeling. “At that time, it was just the beginning of doing computational analyses of texts,” she says. One could put certain passages into a computer “and out came elements…or patterns that, in theory, an individual reader could not have seen.” This kind of combination of quantitative and qualitative skills wasn’t common at the time. “For us, this collaboration was as much a part of the project as whatever we came up with.” 

In 2015, as The New School was looking for ways to better integrate its strong programs in design, social research, and media studies, NSSR Dean Will Milberg decided to approach the Mellon Foundation about a new program. This Integrative PhD initiative would equip graduate students with skills like “computational text analysis, data visualization, cartography and other kinds of mappings so that they could enhance their dissertation projects and ask certain questions that their traditional methodologies did not allow them to ask, and make themselves more marketable,” remembers Wagner-Pacifici.

Milberg also brought Daniel Sauter, Associate Professor of Data Visualization at Parsons, into the discussion. It was a bold act of academic matchmaking — one that Wagner-Pacific views as a success. “We have different ways of asking questions and answering them, and different approaches to data, and that’s been at the heart of the Integrative PhD.”

“We often hear from applicants and fellows that this program is doing exactly what they thought The New School was about in regards to cross-disciplinary learning,” says Sauter. “In that sense, we are happy to implement a core mission of the university, continuously translating methods and pedagogy across schools, and contributing to a learning experience that we believe better prepares fellows for their academic and professional careers.” 

Bringing It All Together

Carey is certainly asking different and more focused questions than she had imagined. When she arrived at NSSR as an MA student, she planned to study Roma human rights in Europe. As her focus shifted to predictive policing — in which law enforcement officials use data analysis software to identify what kinds of criminal activity might happen in the future, as well as where and when it might occur —  she knew she needed to develop new analytical skills. 

“I wasn’t familiar with the theories, or how to go about studying that sort of topic as a qualitative social science researcher,” she says, noting bigger conversations in the field around how to study proprietary systems, whose internal workings are not public, and machine learning algorithms, which continually rewrite themselves. So she applied to the Integrative PhD program and was accepted in the 2017-2019 Fellows cohort.

“The best thing I’ve gotten out of the Integrative PhD was clarifying my methods, and what I hope will be innovations in how social scientists can study data systems,” Carey reflects. “In interdisciplinary work, you have to pull from all these different areas and sometimes your conversations get stuck on concepts or theories instead of the nitty-gritty of combining the methods from these different areas.”

Working with other Fellows has helped Carey answer a variety of research-related questions, from how to manage notes to how to collect and store data. “[More advanced Fellows] had resources to share with me, and now I’m doing the same with the Fellows behind me,” she says.

Another “Thinking Through Interfaces” classmate, Clinical Psychology PhD candidate Emily Breitkopf, is using the class to develop a visual component to her dissertation.

“My larger body of research is about media and technologies of gendering, and my dissertation looks at fetal gendering and sexing practices during pregnancy in the U.S.,” Breitkopf, a 2018-2020 Fellow explains. In particular, she examines how one specific class of technological interfaces — those that help us look inside a pregnant person, such as ultrasound — transform a fetus into an expected boy or girl through the language of gender.

Why do people care so much about fetal gender? “In order to relate to others, even imagined ones, many of us are compelled to wrangle them into binary gendered language because it helps alleviate the anxiety of not feeling stably-gendered ourselves,” Breitkopf says. “So when we have technologies like genetic testing or the ultrasound that offer this ‘promise’ of binary gendered language even during pregnancy, it stands to reason people would want it.”

The interactive visual component of her dissertation is “meant to convey the ways these cultural myths of gender stabilization play out visually, emotionally, through words, sound, and desire,” 

“I’ve always been interested in not only engaging the public at the level of language, but also at the level of feeling, to compel people to encounter the questions I’m asking  at a visceral level,” she says. “Producing a media-based interface has been both familiar and runs counter to the ways I’ve learned to be heard in academia.”

The Integrative PhD program is also helping more established scholars like Adams move their research forward, and in new directions. “This is really a chance to do philosophy in the present,” he says. “These are new devices that we’re surrounded by, but because they’re so new they haven’t yet been adequately theorized.” He’s now planning a conference around the topic, and is digging deeper into interests in architectural history and the built environment.

And emerging scholar Zeyno Ustun, a 2017-2019 Fellow, NSSR Sociology PhD graduate, and a postdoctoral fellow with the Center for Media at Risk at the University of Pennsylvania, has combined her ethnographic and data visualization skills to examine state surveillance and the social and political conditions that facilitated the 2013 Gezi Resistance in Turkey and other networked movements of the 21st century.

The future is collaborative — and with the Integrative PhD, the humanistic social sciences will continue to lead in the digital era.

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.