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From Plato to Kant, a feast for the mind
Lehigh’s inaugural conference in philosophy featured 33 presentations by renowned scholars who discussed topics ranging from Antigone and Aristotle to Descartes and Dewey.
Living in Washington, D.C., just a quarter-mile from the former site of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Nancy Sherman has taken the opportunity to get to know many wounded soldiers returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some of these soldiers, says Sherman, University Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University, have survived injuries so severe that they tax the imagination of civilians who have never experienced war.

But the stories of these soldiers’ recovery, Sherman told a Lehigh audience recently, contain lessons about hope and its rationality, its resilience and its dependence on imagination.

“Hope,” she said, “keeps us going. It can be a scaffold or a bootstrap. It is deeply connected to practical agency.

“For returning combat veterans, if you invest hope in them, this can be transformative.”

Sherman gave one of two keynote addresses at the “Last Chapter” conference, the inaugural annual conference in philosophy organized by Lehigh’s department of philosophy, which was held Oct. 3-4. Her talk was titled, “The Final Chapters of War: Making Peace after War.”

The conference, made possible by a gift from an anonymous donor, featured 33 presentations by philosophers from across the United States and the United Kingdom. Another 16 faculty members from Lehigh’s departments of philosophy, history and religion studies and from the philosophy departments at Lafayette, Muhlenberg and Moravian Colleges and DeSales University chaired sessions.

Among the topics discussed were Antigone and Plato’s Republic, Hume and Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, Hegel, Aristotle and Maimonides, Al-Razi, Plato, John Stuart Mill, Hobbes and Bacon, Descartes and Locke, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Anscombe and Confucius, Metaphilosophy and Dewey, and The End of Philosophy and Augustine.

The goal of the conference, said Robin Dillon, department chair and William Wilson Selfridge Professor of Philosophy, was to “make Lehigh more prominent in the world of philosophy and to make philosophy more prominent at Lehigh.”

Building a “deliberative fantasy”

In her talk, Sherman told the story of Dan, a West Point Army officer who lost both legs and a hip when he stepped on a land mine while on patrol near Kandahar, Afghanistan.

“Most of Dan’s body was gone; it was a mess,” said Sherman. “There was not one place you could touch that didn’t hurt.”

The lack of a right hip made it extremely difficult to attach a prosthetic leg to his body and impossible to keep from sliding out of a chair.

Then Dan heard of Andrei, a young man who suffered similar injuries when he was hit by a train while on vacation in Europe. This man had learned to walk again. Dan invited Andre to come to Walter Reed and talk with him.

“The news of what Andrei had done opened up what philosophers call ‘possibilism’ for Dan,” said Sherman. “His hopes became deliberative, consisting of cognitive resolve and practical agency. He took on a 2.5-year regimen of physical and occupational therapy.”

Dan’s example, said Sherman, “illustrates the rationality of hope and shows how hope makes salient certain features to knit a landscape together.”

It also shows the role imagination plays in hope, she said.

“Dan had built a deliberative fantasy, rehearsing in his head what he would do one day. He avoided idle fears and idle hopes. In this fantasy, he had traded places with Andrei.”

Sherman told of another combat veteran who sustained physical wounds and who also suffered psychological trauma when a soldier under his command was killed in a land-mine explosion.

“What bothered this soldier most were not his injuries or the medications he had to take,” she said, “but the guilt over losing his troops.”

This soldier was buoyed by the hopes that his wife invested in him, and he reciprocated by supporting her educational and career aspirations.

“Both partners have invested in each other’s futures, he in her education, she in his recovery.”

Looking ahead to next year

The other keynote address at the philosophy department’s conference was titled, “Natural and Rational Belief: Kant’s Final Words?” It was given by Paul Guyer, the Jonathan Nelson Professor of Humanities and Philosophy at Brown University.

The conference’s title was suggested by Greg Reihman, adjunct professor of philosophy and associate vice provost for teaching and learning.

“All of our faculty members are oriented to the history of philosophy,” said Dillon. “We liked the idea of a theme that would invite people to examine important texts, and the last chapters of texts sometimes tend to be glossed over. We also liked that the theme lent itself to endings other than those of texts, such as the endings that Nancy Sherman’s talk addressed.”

Planning for the conference took one year. The papers submitted to the conference were reviewed by Aladdin M. Yaqub and Michael Mendelson, associate professors of philosophy.

The philosophy department plans to make the conference an annual event, with a different theme each year. The philosophy faculty have already begun planning for next year’s conference.