Review: First Lecture Series from Institute for Philosophy and the New Humanities

In Fall 2020, NSSR welcomed a new interdisciplinary institute: The Institute for Philosophy and the New Humanities (IPNH), led by Zed Adams, Associate Professor and Chair of Philosophy; Paul Kottman, Professor of Comparative Literature and Chair of Liberal Studies; and Markus Gabriel, chair of epistemology and modern and contemporary philosophy and director of the International Centre for Philosophy at the University of Bonn. IPNH aims to extend humanistic inquiry in new directions to foster work that critically engages the current moment. Read more about INPH here.

In late October, IPNH hosted its first lecture series focused on artificial intelligence. Robert Mass, an NSSR Philosophy PhD student, reviews the series below.

In 2008, I took my children to see WALL-E, a Pixar movie that takes place amid an environmental and human apocalypse. In WALL-E, humans have been essentially made redundant; they live their lives reclining, staring into computer screens, all their basic needs satisfied by technology supplied by the State. 

Over the past 12 years, technology has done amazing things. It has revealed the secrets of the genome, allowing scientists to develop astounding biotech solutions to disease, and brought the world’s accumulated knowledge within reach via mobile phone. However, it has also brought the world of WALL-E closer to reality. We spend more times staring at our screens than interacting with other people, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, technology has now enabled governments and Big Tech to reach deep into our lives to both record and reshape our acts, our words and potentially even our thoughts. We are more dependent on technology, and more subject to manipulation and monitoring. 

These concerns drew me to Artificial Intelligence and the Human, the inaugural discussion series from the new Institute for Philosophy and the New Humanities (IPNH) at The New School for Social Research. For four hours each day from October 19-23, I joined an international group of students and scholars from various disciplines trying to work through the issues that technology poses for living a fulfilling human life.

The broad program included many topics, from the history of automata and computing, to the extent to which computers are able to mimic various forms of human thinking, to whether computers can be called ‘creative,’ to what kind of regulatory framework we might want to set up to limit some of the excesses of super-intelligent Artificial Intelligence (AI 2.0). Speakers included Jens Schröter (University of Bonn) on machine creativity, Nell Watson (QuantaCorp) on AI and social trust, Brian Cantwell Smith (University of Toronto) on AI and the human, and Jessica Riskin (Stanford University) on the influence of machines on our conception of mind. Watch the talks here.

For me, the two most powerful sessions focused not so much on the future of AI, but on the future of human beings in the face of improving AI. 

In one session, Stuart Russell (University of California, Berkeley), argued that to understand AI, we need to realize that it deliberates only about means and not ends, which must be programmed into it by humans. AI optimizes results based on whatever those ends are; thus, the key to AI being beneficial to humanity is ensuring that its objectives are appropriately specified. Research to date has failed to properly theorize about how to do that and as a result, too often AI optimizes for an outcome that is detrimental. Russell argued that we need to develop new approaches to how best to specify beneficial goals, taking into consideration human preferences, e.g., recognizing the difficulties of identifying human preferences and then capturing them computationally, the uncertainty and plasticity of our desires, our weaknesses in identifying those preferences that are beneficial to us, the difficulties of interpersonal comparison of preferences, and the like. He believes that with appropriate focus, super-intelligent AI that benefits humanity can be developed.

After setting before us this fundamentally optimistic picture of what we need to do to guide the development of AI in the future, he left us with two problems.  The first he labelled the Dr. Evil problem — namely that evil actors, both private and state, can cause tremendous havoc in human life.  The second was my great fear, which he, too, called the WALL-E problem — that the overuse of AI will produces human enfeeblement. He had no vaccine for that, either. 

As frightening as that vision of the future is, a more dystopian one was presented by Susan Schneider (Florida Atlantic University). She discussed trans-humanism,  a philosophy that advocates improving the human condition through “mind design” — the implantation of chips in the brain or uploading or merging of mental functions into the cloud to improve mood, attentiveness, memory, musical skill, or calculation abilities.  

While generally positive about these possibilities,  Schneider discussed the philosophical challenges those types of brain augmentations pose.  At some point, augmentation may become so complete that self-consciousness — our felt quality of having inner experience — would be compromised or disappear altogether, and what we have heretofore thought of as distinctive to the human “mind” would no longer exist.  The changes wrote by brain augmentation could also be so great that we could no longer call ourselves the same person we were before the augmentation.  If either of these stages of mind design are reached, humanity as we have known it for millennia will no longer exist, as we will have merged into super-intelligent machines.

The growth of AI is changing our conceptions of human mindedness as well as human flourishing.  The program demonstrated the value the humanities can bring to understanding and perhaps guiding those changes for the better. In that regard, the program amply met the goal of IPNH to demonstrate the continued relevance of humanities in the academy and beyond.

It was quite a week, and I am looking forward to the IPNH Fall 2021 program on Objectivity in the Humanities.


Robert Mass is a Philosophy PhD student at The New School for Social Research

Saving Democracy from the Plague

Transregional Center for Democratic Studies responds to COVID-19 and explores a path for political recovery

In 2019, The New School began its fall semester like most other years. Students excitedly returned to campus, some walking through its doors for the first time. There was an added layer of exhilaration in the air as the academic year marked The New School’s centennial. The university looked back to its beginnings in 1919 with the founding of its University in Exile — the predecessor to The New School for Social Research — as a safe haven for scholars fleeing Nazi Germany, and a century’s worth of scholarship and community activism. It also began to map its next century amid a current time of unprecedented global turmoil.

Building on this spirit, the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS) launched its Democracy Seminar amid the October Festival of New. This “worldwide network of democratic correspondence” met to celebrate the centennial as well as to navigate the rise of authoritarianism around the globe and chart a path forward for the preservation and advancement of liberal democracy. 

TCDS was founded at The New School for Social Research in the 1990s, inspired by the dismantling of communist governments in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989. Since then, TCDS has been dedicated to an interdisciplinary and international examination of democratic theory and practice.

Now, almost a year after that October meeting, the fall 2020 semester looks and feels much different, as does most of daily life in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. In response, TCDS has transitioned much of its global programming online, including holding virtual conferences to address pressing issues of the current moment.

Democracy and the Pandemic

Democracy Seminar is a revival and reimagining of the Democracy Seminar of the late 1980s and early 1990s, conceived of by Polish dissident Adam Michnik and brought to life by Michnik; Jeffrey Goldfarb, Gellert Professor of Sociology and Democracy Seminar chair; and Elzbieta Matynia, Professor of Sociology and Liberal Studies and TCDS director. The original Democracy Seminars were semi-clandestine cross-border meetings of pro-democracy intellectual dissidents in East and Central Europe.

Democracy Seminar also organized by Goldfarb, Matynia, and Jeffrey Isaac, Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington now fosters worldwide and open discussion among pro-democracy academics, journalists, activists, and more. Originally the group was supposed to reconvene in person this summer for an update on global democracy. Instead, they met over Zoom.  On May 20, TCDS held its conference “Democracy & the Pandemic.” In July, they held a public panel: Democracy in a Time of Plague: Challenges & Opportunities in the Struggles Against Authoritarianism, COVID-19 and Racism. 

“The Democracy Seminar, our worldwide committee of democratic correspondence, moved to Zoom in May,” says Goldfarb. “We met to urgently consider how the COVID-19 pandemic and the pandemic of authoritarianism are related. There was bad and good news reported from Brazil, China, Georgia, Hungary, Poland,  Romania, Slovakia, South Africa, Turkey and the United States. While the virus is being used by authoritarians to strengthen their positions in innovative ways,  their opponents are also innovatively working to strengthen their opposition, and we used our conference to compare notes. I think there was a general consensus that the situation is bleak, but not hopeless.” 

“The alarming worldwide trend of abandoning democratic rule began at least five years ago, but the pandemic has sharpened its visibility,” says Matynia. “We discussed how the pandemic has provided opportunities for authoritarian regimes everywhere to expand their emergency powers in order to consolidate their peculiar autocratic legalism; but we also asked whether it might under certain conditions serve to topple them? The issue that was of particular interest to me was whether the very experience of this borderless occurrence, the pandemic, might provide an opportunity for the rebuilding of cross-national bonds of social solidarity.” 

Student Collaboration 

Students across NSSR participated in the discussions. “The Democracy Seminar is a great and meaningful event for me to hear the voices of the international scholars and activists from all over the world and their insightful reflections on the current global pandemic and democratic crisis,” says Sociology MA student Chang Liu, who contributed an article on China and the pandemic. 

“The virtual Democracy Seminar was a truly inspiring event for me,” said Malkhaz Toria, a Sociology MA student and coordinator of the Memory Studies Group at The New School. Toria is also an associate professor of history and head of the Memory Studies Center at the Ilia State University in Tbilisi, Georgia. “The distinguishing participants scholars, journalists, activists, and graduate students from the Americas, Eastern Europe, South Africa, and China addressed backsliding from democracy exposed by COVID-19. In many countries, we witnessed rising authoritarian rule and right-wing populism before the coronavirus outbreak. However, the already existent pressing issues re-appeared in new lights during the ongoing pandemic. Insightful discussions and debates at the seminar covered an array of topics on how the pandemic is employed by authoritarian governments elsewhere. The Coronavirus revealed disturbing practices of using and abusing power to further impose governmental rules and restrict civil rights while failing to deal with the public health crisis caused by the COVID-19. But panelists also observed democratic ‘innovation’ and ‘awakenings’ to protest and resist these troubling signs of undermining democracy. Fortunately, we also hear strong critical voices from observed countries, and the Democracy Seminar exemplified these sincere hopes for the global defense of democracy.” 

In the Same Boat

After a summer of rigorous online programming and intellectual discussion, Goldfarb published an update on the Democracy Seminar, titled “We’re All in the Same Boat.” 

“As I wrote over two years ago, when our current group first began to take shape, this is the second iteration of the Democracy Seminar,” wrote Goldfarb “Back then, our immediate situations were strikingly different on each side of the “iron curtain.” Now, we are all in the same boat. The papers prepared for the conference, and our discussions on Zoom all attest to this.” Reflections on TCDS work done this past summer and more ongoing writing can be viewed on Democracy Seminar at Public Seminar.

TCDS is preparing for an online fall 2020 semester and another season of programming via Zoom. They are re-launching the Memory Studies Group at The New School and are looking at summer 2021 for holding their next graduate Democracy & Diversity Institute in Wroclaw, Poland. Among the first events of the semester, TCDS will host Toria and Mykola Balaban, two former Open Society Foundations (OSF) Global Dialogue Fellows at TCDS (2016). They will talk in an online public panel about their collaborative research on “Narrating Conflicts in Post-Truth Era, Facing Revisionist Russia: Ukraine and Georgia in Comparative Perspective,” supported by a ‘Global Dialogs’ Collaborative Research Grant, funded by OSF (2019-2020).  

TCDS plans to continue to grow and adapt, standing up to the ever-evolving threats to liberal democracy.


Alexa Mauzy-Lewis is a Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA student. She is a writer, editor, and the student advisor for CPCJ with her cat, Goat. Read more of her work at www.alexamauzylewis.xyz