Tomas Lima Pimenta has received a DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service) Long-term Research Grant Award for the 2021-2022 academic year.
A Philosophy PhD candidate, Pimenta will spend a year at Freie Universität Berlin working with faculty member Robin Celikates. In addition to finishing work on his dissertation, he plans to participate in Celikates’ seminars and research groups, as well as activities of the Center for Humanities and Social Change at Humboldt University, directed by Celikates and Rahel Jaeggi.
“I felt delighted and relieved with the award,” says Pimenta. “I am excited to work with Celikates closely, to live in Berlin, and I am also relieved with the financial support….I am looking forward to focusing solely on my research after October.”
Pimenta’s dissertation addresses the contemporary spread of conspiracy theories as a fundamental tool of right-wing extremism propaganda. It gives an account of the crisis of liberal democracy through the notion of trust and the increasing distrust in institutions. It also offers a political-psychological account of political paranoia as a mode of subjectivity.
“This research is essentially motivated by the genocidal politics promoted by the ultraliberal government in Brazil during the COVID-19 pandemic,” explains Pimenta. “It ultimately attempts to understand the suicidal logic, beyond the necropolitical logic, that dominates Brazilian society and explores the fundamental role of the conspirational subject in that process.” His dissertation advisor is Jay Bernstein, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy.
Originally trained as an economist specializing in Marxist Economics and Dependency Theory, Pimenta is deeply interested in both German and Latin American thought. In addition to this upcoming DAAD fellowship, he has twice been a fellow of NSSR’s Janey Program in Latin American Studies. “All my research interests are guided by the relevant social, political, and philosophical problems of Brazil and Latin America,” he says.
Romy Opperman began her postdoctoral fellowship with NSSR’s Philosophy department in Fall 2020. Opperman’s work focuses on issues of environmental justice through the lenses of Black feminist and decolonial philosophy.
As a student of continental philosophy, Opperman has always been interested in “questions of control and management of life.” Opperman began looking at the ways Africana philosophy engages with the continental tradition and, at times, repurposes it, posing questions about “humanism, its limits and its links to violence; animality and how it’s bound up in race; and hegemonic conceptions of nature,” and pointing to aspects that thinkers like Foucault had missed in his analysis of racism and biopower.
That interest took a new form when Opperman was in graduate school at Pennsylvania State University and considering her dissertation. “I was increasingly engaged in Africana philosophy and decolonial philosophy at the same time that a new public consciousness arose around environmental justice issues,” she explains. Opperman saw those philosophical questions come to life through mass political and social movements, from the organized opposition to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline through Standing Rock Reservation to increased public pressure to provide residents of Flint, Michigan with clean water. “I began thinking about what tools I found within continental philosophy and Africana philosophy for trying to understand these events in ways that I thought were useful and different from how one might typically approach them,” she says.
Opperman’s work challenges mainstream conceptions of racism and environmental issues as distinct, with only occasional overlap. “My use of the term racist environments aims to show how racism and the environment are in fact co-constitutive,” she explains. “This is different from the way that environmental racism is commonly understood, that is, where racism and the environment are only sometimes linked in exceptional circumstances.” She proposes a turn to radical Black ecology, which emphasizes the possibility and necessity of imagining a radically different way of being.
Through her dissertation, “Race, Ecology, Freedom: Climate Justice and Environmental Racism,” Opperman “brought to the fore issues of power, domination, and normativity” by turning her philosophical attention to something discourses in philosophy often overlook: the communities that have already felt the impact of climate change and developed expertise to survive.
“I argued that the radical critique of liberal humanism common to the work of Sylvia Wynter, Frantz Fanon, and Saidiya Hartman shows us why it is necessary to break with liberal frames of environmental injustice and offers grounds for an alternative approach to understand the nature of the harm of environmental racism, the stakes of struggles against it, and to imagine its redress, which I term ecological freedom,” Opperman recalls.
Connecting at NSSR
At NSSR, Opperman raises many of the same questions in “Black Feminist Thought: Labor, Genealogy, Memory” a graduate philosophy course she’s taught during the spring 2021 semester. While it’s not explicitly about climate change, the course includes readings from Christina Sharpe and Sylvia Wynter on Black feminist ecologies, and, as Opperman explained, race and the environment are inextricable. “It’s been really important and special for me to be able to go into my first job in a philosophy department and teach a graduate course on Black feminist thought,” Opperman says. “It’s a dream situation!”
As she continues working within NSSR’s Philosophy department, Opperman hopes to recruit more women to the graduate program and to expand its curriculum. “Putting feminist philosophy — particularly, but not only, Black and decolonial [feminist] philosophy — as part of our core agenda is really important to me,” she says.
Opperman’s presence has already had a major impact. “We are tremendously happy to have Romy joining the department. Her graduate seminar is making a crucial contribution to our curriculum, as is her writing seminar, which she developed to provide graduate students with much-needed feedback on writing with an eye towards publication,” Zed Adams, Associate Professor and Chair of Philosophy says. “It is quickly becoming hard to remember what our department was like without her.”
At its heart, Opperman’s work is deeply interdisciplinary; it incorporates critical theory, film criticism, and gender and sexualities studies. In that spirit, she’s also involved with The New School’s cross-divisional Collaborative on Climate Futures, led by faculty from NSSR and Parsons. Opperman is excited to collaborate with academics from a wide range of backgrounds working on the same questions of race, environment, and power.
Opperman has also worked in collaboration with the Gender and Sexualities Studies Institute (GSSI). She organized and presented at the March 22 GSSI event “Finding Ceremony: Honoring Black Feminist Elders,” which focused on the legacy of Black feminists like Sylvia Wynter and Alexis Pauline Gumbs and former New School professor M. Jacqui Alexander, who Opperman describes as “an amazing queer trans-national Black feminist thinker and spiritual practitioner.”
For the GSSI blog, she wrote “Haunting and Hosting,” which analyses the films Ghost and Twilight City, as well as Alexander’s account of her experience at NSSR, through the lens of Alexander’s Pedagogies of Crossing. Opperman hopes to continue collaborating with the GSSI, and to uplift the status of Gender and Sexualities Studies within NSSR.
In addition to working on articles that ask how established topics within climate justice such as debt, intergenerational ethics, and migration are transformed when approached from Black and decolonial feminist grounds, Opperman is working to turn her dissertation into a book, tentatively titled Africana Ecopolitics: Radical Philosophies of Ecological Freedom. The book will incorporate the perspectives of a wider range of Africana thinkers, and further develop its explanation of “ecological freedom” in relation to decolonization and abolition. “It’s been a really exciting time in terms of a kind of explosion of interdisciplinary work around race and ecology… I think philosophy does have some important tools to offer and ways of thinking that could be a really useful part of that,” she says. “I’m figuring out the best ways [philosophy] can complement people doing all kinds of this work.”
Cailin Potami is a writer, an editor, and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Queens with their cats, Linguini and Tortellini.
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.
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.
As world-renowned scholars in their fields, several New School for Social Research faculty members recently received major honors from universities in Europe and South America.
Richard Bernstein, Vera List Professor of Philosophy, received an honorary doctorate from the University of Buenos Aires in September 2019.
As part of several days of celebration, Bernstein gave a keynote lecture on his philosophical journey; participated in a roundtable discussion entitled “Philosophy as Conversation: 40 Years of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature by Richard Rorty”; and presented the 2019 Spanish translation of his 1983 classic, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Practice.
Bernstein is a celebrated scholar of American pragmatism, and is teaching a class on the topic at NSSR this spring. He writes and teaches across fields including social and political philosophy, critical theory, and Anglo-American philosophy. He has taught at NSSR since 1989, and has had an integral role in shaping the school as both NSSR dean and chair of the Department of Philosophy.
Alice Crary, University Distinguished Professor, has been named Visiting Fellow at Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford. This continuing position supports Crary’s ongoing relationships with faculty and students at Regent’s, where in 2018-2019 she was Fellow in Philosophy and Christian Ethics, as well as with the greater Oxford community. Crary was the first Regent’s Fellow to be awarded a personal chair at Oxford from the start of their appointment.
A moral and social philosopher, Crary has written widely on issues in metaethics, moral psychology and normative ethics, philosophy and literature, philosophy and feminism, critical animal studies, critical disability studies, and Critical Theory as well as on figures such as Austin, Cavell, Diamond, Foot, Murdoch and Wittgenstein. Her most recent book is Inside Ethics: On the Demands of Moral Thought (Harvard University Press, 2016), a monograph on the representation of animals and humans in ethical discourse. Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy described the book as “a sweeping challenge to several widely shared orthodoxies in metaphysics and moral philosophy.”
In Spring 2020, Crary is co-teaching a graduate seminar on Animal Ethics with Dale Jamieson, Professor of Environmental Studies and Philosophy at New York University.
Willi Semmler, Arnhold Professor of International Cooperation and Development, received an honorary doctorate from FON University in North Macedonia in late January 2020. Following the ceremony, he took part in a summit entitled The Role of Education for Global Peace and Sustainable Development.
Ambassador Prof. Dr. Karim Errouaki, President Emeritus of FON University, called Semmler “one of the most far-seeing political economists of our time,” adding, “For nearly 40 years, you have been a generative thinker, one whose theories have transformed the core of teaching in the field of Dynamic Modeling, Empirical Macroeconomics, and Finance and more recently you have pioneered and shaped the new field of Macroeconomics of Climate Change.”
A research associate and director of the Economics of Climate Change project at NSSR’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, Semmler is indeed on the forefront of new efforts to try to make measurable the economic impacts of climate catastrophe. His latest research focuses on financing low-carbon transitions through green bonds and carbon pricing, and he wrote a report on the topic for the World Bank with several NSSR Economics alumni and current students.