Featured Research: The Examined Life | National Humanities Center

Featured Research

Featured Research: The Examined Life

August 1, 2022

In this issue, we highlight the research of Fellows from the class of 2021–22 whose work explores how we should go about living fuller lives and creating communities dedicated to justice for everyone.

Gregory Fernando Pappas

Project: Injustice: An Inter-American and Community of Inquiry Approach

Gregory Fernando Pappas is professor of philosophy at Texas A&M University. He works within the Latinx, American Pragmatist, and Latin American philosophical traditions in ethics and social-political philosophy. He is the author of numerous articles on the philosophy of John Dewey and Luis Villoro. Pappas’s current research project is developing “An Inter-American Approach to the Problems of Injustice.” He is working on a book-length manuscript on how we should approach problems of injustice drawing on the insights of American Pragmatism (e.g. Jane Addams, John Dewey), Latinx and Latin American philosophers (e.g. Luis Villoro, Paulo Freire, Maria Lugones), and community-based participatory research.

Philosophy; Comparative Philosophy; Philosophy of Mind; Political Philosophy; Social Justice
Zapatistas engaging in communal dialogue and reflection, guided by principles expressed in the background signage that include Proponer y No Imponer (To Propose, Not Impose) and Convencer y No Vencer (To Convince, Not Conquer).

What was the initial spark that led you to this project? What are the big questions that you are considering?

My current research project emerged as a citizen concerned with the never-ending problems of injustice (e.g., racism, xenophobia, sexism, inequities of educational and health resources, gentrification, homelessness, and segregation) found all over the United States. The recent pandemic and the recent cases of police brutality have exposed even more clearly the social-systematic injustices that have been around for a long time, but that continue to undermine the social fabric of our communities, cities, and what is left of our democracy. I began to wonder what are the common tendencies (national habits) and obstacles that continue to undermine our ways of tackling injustice in the US, our historical failures.

What is just as problematic is the level of polarization and disagreement that exist today about what we should do about these concrete problems. There is a growing consensus that after the stage of protest there needs to be some significant changes in order to ameliorate racial and other systematic injustices. What sorts of changes are needed if we are to not just survive, but to live a better life? Where do we go from here if we want lasting transformation? Where do we look for lessons?

Many agree that a radical change is needed. However, there is disagreement about what sort of changes are needed and the exact proper means. Some are advocating for changes in law, policy, and political leadership; others think we need local changes at the level of institutions and material conditions. Others think that radical change will not happen unless we address the problem at the level of the economic-political national and global system we all live in, such as neoliberalism. Meanwhile, others think we need to change peoples’ moral character (“hearts”) and our relationships with others.

As a philosopher I realize that behind these disagreements there are some philosophical questions worth asking and exploring. These questions led me to try to answer other related questions, too. I hope my research uncovers creative new ways to battle recurrent and intractable injustices that have continuously shaped American history and American lives.

In the course of your research have you run across anything that genuinely surprised you? What can you tell us about it?

In my search for answers to how best to tackle our worst injustices and erosion of democratic living, one of the biggest surprises was how we academics tend to underestimate the sharp experimental thinking skills of activist grass roots community organizations, and especially their practical wisdom. For instance, the resilient and self-sustaining communities found in three places in the Americas: Detroit (Boggs Center), Adjuntas, Puerto Rico (Casa Pueblo), and Chiapas, Mexico (Zapatistas communities). They have experimented with community-based transformative justice in all spheres of life from police and the justice system to health care, economy, and education. There is a lot we can learn from them.

Another surprising discovery is the degree in which in our society, we have not questioned the national habit of relying only on “top down” ways to grapple with injustices and lack of democracy, i.e. we must first (a) change our legal, economical, and political system; (b) check the power of our political leaders (i.e., ensure they are accountable); or (c) we (the people) have the power (control) of the state. This model of reform or revolution is built into our limited notion of democracy as a system of representative democracy. The American grassroots communities I studied can show us a different approach, what I call “radical democracy.” These communities had shown that a lot of meaningful local and communal hard work can be done and we do not need to wait on (a), (b), or (c) to change the world. As Alexis Massol from Casa Pueblo has said: “Podemos hacer cambios desde abajo, sin tener el poder politico” (We can make changes from below without first having political power).

What new avenues of inquiry do you hope this research will prompt or make possible in your field?

My project is inter-American in drawing from American and Latin American philosophers as well as from grassroots community organizing/activism across the Americas. I am hoping my research encourages a new generation of young scholars to do more inter-American philosophy in order to creatively address contemporary social problems in new and promising ways. There is a lot of unexplored potential in this new era of research.

I also hope that my book encourages more self-criticism and humility among academics doing research on injustice. I argue that there is communal wisdom and philosophical reasons for inverting the traditional model of inquiry of injustice in the academy and cities in a much more bottom-up democratic direction than our current taken-for-granted practice. Merely relying on experts, policy makers, and political leaders fails to encourage or enable a more democratic culture. Moreover, it is epistemically deficient and counterproductive as a response to many problems of injustice.

The rigorous multidisciplinary research in universities on the historical and sociological causes of injustices is necessary but not sufficient. Those most directly affected by the injustice must have an active role in guiding the entire process of inquiry. If universities in the twenty-first century are to serve the public good, they must not just export or apply self-produced knowledge, but create knowledge with those outside them.

Krista K. Thomason

Project: Worms in the Garden: Bad Feelings in a Good Life

Krista K. Thomason is associate professor of philosophy at Swarthmore College. She specializes in moral philosophy, the history of philosophy, and social/political philosophy. Her current research is about the role of negative emotions in moral life and relations. Her first book, Naked: The Dark Side of Shame and Moral Life, was published with Oxford University Press in 2018. Some of her articles appear in professional journals such as Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, European Journal of Philosophy, The Monist, and Kantian Review. She has been interviewed by CNN and The Wall Street Journal, and has written public pieces in Aeon Magazine and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

bust of Seneca
Ancient bust of Seneca the Younger (4 BCE–65 CE)

What was the initial spark that led you to this project? What are the big questions that you are considering?

The earliest spark for the project came from my many memories of being told to “calm down.” I’m an animated, passionate person, and I’ve learned that many people are uncomfortable with strong emotions, especially when those emotions are negative. Trying to both understand and also question that discomfort has been the focus of my philosophical work for most of my career. Common wisdom says that negative emotions are dangerous and damaging, and we ought to do our best to get over them. I’ve assigned myself the role of devil’s advocate for bad feelings. My new book argues that we shouldn’t see negative emotions as obstacles to a good life. On the contrary, they’re essential to it.

In the course of your research have you run across anything that genuinely surprised you? What can you tell us about it?

I’m a historian of philosophy at heart, so I love reading dead people, and I am always amazed when what puzzles and fascinates me also puzzled and fascinated my philosophical ancestors. Emotions have been a part of philosophical inquiry since the moment it started. You have Seneca, a Roman Stoic from the first century; Śāntideva, a Buddhist philosopher in India from the eighth century; Adam Smith, the eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher and economist; and Audre Lorde, the twentieth-century African-American poet and feminist all thinking and writing about anger. Of course, they have different ideas about whether anger is good and how it works, but they’re also bound together through time and space by this one emotional experience.

What new avenues of inquiry do you hope this research will prompt or make possible in your field?

I think philosophy has lost sight of some of the big and messy questions that the average person is interested in. There is a growing call to reconnect with those questions, and I hope my book can be another voice in that call. I want the book to help reinvigorate a rich conversation about the distinct values and challenges of being a human in the world. Humans aren’t just members of a biological category. We’re creatures that seek out and make meaning in our lives. Philosophers have lots to contribute to collective discussions about how we do that well and what obstacles we face along the way. We can help people in their search for meaningful self-understanding.