Where Are the Penn State Philosophers?

Continental philosophy has a tradition of interest in ethics, and Penn State has its share of philosophers who claim ethics as a specialty or sub-specialty. The phrase in Philosophy departments is “area of competence.”  Someone might have expected some of these Penn State philosophers to have taken the lead on some ethical statement about what has been happening at their university (Robert Bernasconi, Dennis Schmidt, Jennifer Mensch, for example), but as far as I can tell, the response has been crickets. Some of the philosophers claim expertise in applied ethics, and what has taken place at Penn State would seem to call out, perhaps in a Heideggerian way (if that helps the Penn Staters) for application.  Have I missed the philosophers’ articles or op-ed pieces?  Some of the faculty members in the Philosophy Department there already have had to spend energies explaining their allegiances to the politics and ethics of Heidegger and Gadamer, and perhaps one or more could appeal to the title of one of Gadamer’s essays entitled “The Political Incompetence of Philosophy.”  The area of competence for some of the philosophers might indeed be incompetence of that sort, and then perhaps we should welcome crickets.

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7 responses to “Where Are the Penn State Philosophers?

  1. Luther Blissett

    This is silly. It’s kind of like complaining that biologists haven’t said anything about the discovery of the Higgs boson. What’s wrong with those incompetent scientists? Heidegger and Gadamer weren’t ethicists. I’m sure they had their opinions, but they did not write books on politics. Which of those faculty members is allied to H&G’s politics? They were both Nazis, by the way. Are there swastikas displayed in Penn State’s philosophy department? I don’t think so. If the faculty does teach or research “ethics”, it probably refers to some abstract concept found in some Greek texts, and not about practical stuff like who football coaches should shower with. Back in the ancient Greek days, it might not have been scandalous for men to shower with boys, so be careful what you ask for!

    • If you take a look at the publications of the sample of Penn State philosophers I mentioned, you will see that they indeed do write about ethics and politics. Dr. Mensch, for example, lists as one of her specialties “applied ethics.” Bernasconi has written about the small topic of “Globalization and Hunger.” Schmidt has a book with a subtitle that includes the phrase “ethical life.” Heidegger and Gadamer did indeed write about ethics. Take a look at Being and Time, or Gadamer’s essays on Plato, particularly his commentary on friendship in Plato, and it is not as if those publications are sui generis for either philosopher. Hope this helps.

  2. Luther Blissett

    In my copy of Being and Time, “ethics” appears in two places. Once in a list of things people study, and in a quote from Yorck about the possibility of a science of ethics. Heidegger’s not interested in whether some behavior is right or reprehensible. His question was about the conditions that allow there to be things such as science, ethics, moods, and anything else we try to make sense of. I don’t know every paper by every prof at Penn, but I have read some of Schmidt’s. He uses “ethical life” for the Greek notion of ethos; which Heidegger discusses; elsewhere, not in B&T. This is different from ethics in the sense of rules for how coaches should behave.

    Maybe philosophy professors should guide universities rules, but since the McCarthy era, universities tend to hire professors who stick to their specialized domains. Universities don’t want their professors being called to DC to account for controversial statements. They have enough problems trying to keep their coaches out of trouble.

    • Heidegger’s writings about Sorge in BT are taken by several Heidegger scholars (e.g., Joanna Hodge) as guideposts for ethics, in a way different from the special slant that you suggest, in which Heidegger is concerned solely about prior conditions of this or that. Even if one agrees to the imposition of anachronism you suggest to let the Penn State philosophers off the hook, i.e., that their concern is for some Greek abstraction and not with contemporary duties and obligations for all human beings, then you would have to warp your understanding of what the Greeks meant by ethos. At least in the Aristotelian sense, ethos has to do with action, one’s habits, habits that form one’s character. Remaining silent as egregious things happen at one’s university is not a habit I hope you would endorse, whether McCarthy would be in the picture or not. Is it controversial to be against the sexual abuse of children?

      • Luther Blissett

        I think there’s a broad consensus that adults having sex with children is wrong. And the goings on at Penn were stopped when news broke out of the inner circle of cognoscenti. I’m not sure what you expect Penn philosophers can add. Maybe they should have known that a pathological ethos was present on their campus, since they were on location? I spent five years at a university and only ever saw football coaches on TV.

        You’re right about Joanna Hodge, and the others that have applied Heidegger’s ideas to ethics, but Heidegger himself doesn’t have much to contribute to the subject; in the hundred volumes he’s left us. He did have a spell in university administration, addressing basic questions in pedagogy, but that didn’t go well, so he quit and returned to ontology.

        I met Robert Bernasconi this spring and I did not get the impression he didn’t have anything to say about moral issues, quite the opposite. I have my opinions about what should have been done at Penn. But I was not inspired into any new ethical insights, by the revelations.

  3. I graduated from Penn State with a Philosophy degree. I had the pleasure of taking a course with Dennis Schmidt. (Ancient Philosophy). I can say as a student of his that he is a devoted father and quite remarkably a devoted professor. His love for his students may very well outweigh his desire to “be known” and “be heard.” As far as the department as a whole it also earns high marks. Now my opinion is bias of course. Nevertheless only so much can be said at a time.

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