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Beyond the Modernist Understanding of Consciousness. Thursdays at Four, February 26, 2015.

Beyond the Modernist Understanding of Consciousness

Thursday, February 26, 2015, at 4:00pm
Northrop — Crosby Seminar Room (240)

Roundtable with Matthew Chafee, Neuroscience; Jan Estep, Art; Nicole Scott, Cognitive Science; and Daniel Lord Smail, Harvard, History
Moderated by Apostolos Georgopoulos, Neuroscience and JB Shank, History


Download: audio, small video, or original.


Download: audio, small video, or original.

Our forum is inspired by the proposition that current thinking about mind, body and consciousness is hindered by its encapsulation within “modernist” intellectual paradigms. Recent discoveries in brain science, genetics, and cognitive neuroscience, for example, are routinely trumpeted as modern scientific breakthroughs that have made previous understandings obsolete. In the face of these Western scientific breakthroughs, non-scientific and non-Western understandings of consciousness have also been forced to defend themselves as something other than unmodern conceptions destined for the dustbin of history. The spectacular insights revealed by the most recent science are certainly undeniable, but many would counter that recent work in brain science, genetics, and cognitive neuroscience has not replaced previous understandings so much as posed ancient questions in new and provocative ways. Vigorous dialogue among all parties about the nature of consciousness could and should have been the outcome of these recent scientific developments, but instead, we contend, modernist disciplinary and institutional structures have thwarted this potential by breaking broad dialogue into narrow disciplinary debates pursued among specialist communities in isolation from one another.

The urge to break out of the modernist disciplinary straitjacket is widely felt across the university, yet the challenge is finding a space to pursue such integrated exchanges. Terms like “mindfulness” and “embodied cognition” have emerged as organizing categories within the conjoined scientific fields of cognitive science, neural science, psychology, and physiology in response to a desire within the sciences for integrative, cross-disciplinary perspectives. But less developed are the equally crucial conversations that cut across the “Two Cultures” divide. The arts and humanities possess important methods and perspectives for understanding human consciousness, but the institutional separation of the liberal arts from the natural sciences thwarts the development of integrative understanding of the mind-body question. The polarization also creates negative effects in each direction since the influence of recent scientific advances has exerted a noticeable impact in fields ranging from philosophy and history to art and literary studies even though the “cognitive science turn” in the humanities has proceeded largely in isolation from those conversations in the natural sciences that have informed this new research.

Our initiative will bring the perspectives of recent science together with those of the arts and the humanities to address fundamental questions related to consciousness — i.e. what is the self, the mind, the body, the conscious subject, etc.? It proposes to replace the current modernist disciplinary fragmentation plaguing such inquiries with an integrative and multidisciplinary approach to these questions, one that especially aspires to bring scholars and students from across the disciplines of the university into one historically-informed and unified inquiry. Sponsored jointly by the Consortium for the Study of the Premodern World (CSPW) and the Center for Cognitive Sciences (CCS), and drawing support from the Institute for Advanced Study, our initiative brings together the network of arts and humanities scholars in the CSPW devoted to thinking about contemporary issues in a global, multicultural, and deeply historical ways with the network of scientific researchers and practitioners in the CCS pursuing similar questions through the methods of science. We will launch a university-wide faculty graduate student seminar in 2015-16 that will serve as the locus of our work, and we will invite speakers to join us in our discussions. Ultimately we look forward to producing a publication or some other result that will document our work.

Matthew Chafee is Assistant Professor in the Department of Neuroscience. His research concerns the neural basis of spatial cognition and working memory, and cortical system dysfunction in psychiatric disease.

Jan Estep is Beverly and Richard Fink Professor in Liberal Arts. She has an expanded creative practice that comprises critical writing, creative writing, and a range of visual media including sculpture, photography, video, and independent publishing. Trained as a philosopher (PhD, Washington University, St. Louis) and a visual artist (MFA, University of Illinois, Chicago), the relationship between thought and visual expression fuels a wide range of material and conceptual investigations, particularly as this concerns the connection between art and language, thought and experience, the sensory and the conceptual. She is also concerned with the ways humans connect to nature and give meaning to our perceptions.

Apostolos Georgopoulos, Regents Professor of Neuroscience, is the director of the Center for Cognitive Sciences and of the Brain Sciences Center at the University of Minnesota. He holds the McKnight Presidential Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and the American Legion Brain Sciences Chair. His research examines brain mechanisms of movement and cognition, functional brain biomarkers, and cortical networks.

Nicole Scott is a Predoctoral Candidate in Cognitive Sciences and Program Support Assistant at the Brain Sciences Center, University of Minnesota.

J.B. Shank is a professor of History at the University of Minnesota. His recent publications include Before Voltaire: Newton, “Newtonianism,” and the Beginning of the Enlightenment in France (University of Chicago Press, 2005) and “Fontenelle’s Calculus: The Cultural Politics of Mathematics in Louis XIV’s France,” in David Glimp and Michelle Warren eds, Arts of Calculation: Numerical Thought in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave/McMillan, 2004)

Daniel Lord Smail is professor and interim chair of History at Harvard University, where he works on the history and anthropology of Mediterranean societies between 1100 and 1600 and on deep human history. Smail’s work in deep history and neurohistory has addressed some of the methodological and theoretical underpinnings of these approaches to the human past. His most recent article in this vein asks whether there is a history of the practice of compulsive hoarding. His books include The Consumption of Justice: Emotions, Publicity, and Legal Culture in Marseille, 1264-1423 (2003); On Deep History and the Brain (2008), and, with Andrew Shryock and others, Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present (2011).

Prof Estep has long been involved with the IAS and has been interviewed twice by the Bat of Minerva. Prof. Shank also has a long involvement with the IAS and has been interviewed by the Bat. Prof. Georgopoulos previously spoke at the IAS in May 2014 on “Brain, the Wise Problem Solver“.

Cosponsored by The Consortium for the Study of the Premodern World, the Department of History, the Brain Sciences Center, the Center for Cognitive Sciences, and the Department of Neuroscience.
descartes mind body consciousness premodern

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8 Comments

  1. Steven BraunMarch 3, 2015 at 4:21 pmReply

    I’m really curious to learn more about the “university-wide faculty graduate student seminar in 2015-16” that is hoped to continue this discussion on consciousness. Will there be more concrete conversation on this possibility forthcoming?

    • Aaron Victorin-VangerudMarch 3, 2015 at 4:55 pmReplyAuthor

      All the IAS really knows now is that the seminar is still in early stages of planning. You ought to contact Profs. Shank and Georgopoulos.

  2. Kevin SchwandtFebruary 26, 2015 at 6:49 pmReply

    I was hoping to attend but got caught up with a patient. Hope it works to post the video so we can still check this out! Thanks

    • Aaron Victorin-VangerudFebruary 26, 2015 at 7:39 pmReplyAuthor

      Video should be up tonight or tomorrow.

  3. Eric KlingerFebruary 21, 2015 at 3:37 amReply

    Is anyone recording this roundtable? If so, I’d love to have a copy or a chance to listen to it.

    • Aaron Victorin-VangerudFebruary 23, 2015 at 10:25 amReplyAuthor

      We plan to record it and post the recording on this page for viewing and download.

  4. Aaron Victorin-VangerudFebruary 4, 2015 at 1:23 pmReplyAuthor

    No RSVP is necessary–the discussion is public.

  5. Kelly DavisFebruary 3, 2015 at 8:33 amReply

    I would like to attend this discussion. Is there an RSVP link?

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