James Lewis / Looking Back Over a Month-Long Research Visit

I am writing from my home in Sheffield, nearly two weeks after returning from Copenhagen where I spent the month of September ensconced in the research community at the Center for Subjectivity Research. I spent that time quietly getting on with some work of my own, but every day discussing various philosophical issues with the Center’s members (to my great advantage). I have nothing but very warm memories of the academic environment and how kindly I was welcomed into it for a month.

My own work over this period has been revolving around the concept of agapic love. Agape is often thought of as the Christian notion of the unconditional love that God bestows upon every person (in his omniscient, benevolent wisdom). Christians also traditionally conceive of agape as the kind of love that people ought to bestow upon all people. This includes, for example, loving total strangers, and loving one’s sworn enemies. The work that I have been doing – which I presented at the Research Seminar at the conclusion of my stay – amounts to an effort to establish whether this notion of agape belongs in a secular ethical worldview. That is: whether even those of us who don’t believe in God really should act lovingly towards even our enemies. And if we should, then I am interested to establish what the basis for these reasons of love might be.

The Center has been a fruitful place to pursue this work, partly because a focus of my thinking has been a particular historical figure that several people there have been able to help me to understand. His name is Martin Buber, an Austrian-born Jewish theologian and philosopher who lived from 1878-1965. His most well-known work I and Thou – published in 1923 – advances a view of how people relate to each other: a view of the most basic dynamics of interpersonal interaction. Buber describes the way that sometimes we are struck by something about another person that lies completely beyond our grasp, and the way that when that happens, we feel the appropriate response to be to take up a kind of openness towards that person. My paper attempts to argue that this kind of openness is what is required to make sense of agapic love.

But besides muddling away on those matters, I profited a great deal from other activity going on at the Center while I was there. Not least, the terrific conference on Empathy, Recognition and Morality, that Dan Zahavi mentioned in an earlier post on this blog. This conference staged some productive discussions of issues that are closely related to my own PhD research, so I was very grateful to be party to those conversations. And on the topic of my gratitude, I really am very thankful indeed to everyone at the Center for having me in their midst, and to the White Rose College of Arts and Humanities who paid for my trip.

James Lewis
PhD Candidate in Philosophy
University of Sheffield

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