My first year of the PhD program in philosophy at Penn State University has been very fruitful and intellectually stimulating. Coming from a completely different system, based on (almost) exclusively front-style lessons and oral examinations, I was at first confronted with the task of learning how to write a paper, as well as how to appropriately participate in class discussion. Considering the development and results of my first year of study, I am both satisfied with the progresses made so far and deeply aware of the several steps I still need to take in order to achieve a stable position as a professional scholar. First and foremost, I have to learn a method to individuate those philosophical questions and themes that underlie different philosophical movements and authors without either confounding or reducing them, hence situating such themes and questions in their respective contexts.
In the first semester, my research focused on Kant’s practical philosophy, Peirce’s pragmatic conception of reality, and the theoretical relevance of Levinas’ philosophical proposal as it is developed in Totality and Infinity. In the second semester, I inquired into the problem of soul’s divisibility in Aristotle’s De Anima, Irigaray’s perspective on sexual difference, and the relevance of the last chapter of Voice and Phenomenon for Derrida’s general philosophical project (as such project was developed in that early masterpiece).
With the only exception of Peirce (and, to a minor degree, of Kant and Derrida), I have chosen my classes and the related research topics with the intention of acquiring some initial familiarity with authors and problems that were extraneous to my previous knowledge. In part, this is the reason why I often found myself hesitant at intervening in class discussion. On the other hand, I am aware that I need to risk more, taking advantage of classes not only as an opportunity to study certain important texts, but also to develop my rhetorical skills and put my ideas to the test of others’ reflections. As to my writing, considering that only two years ago I was not able to write a text message in English, I am satisfied of the progresses I made so far. However, I would like to develop a richer style of writing, broadening my vocabulary as well my knowledge of sentence-structures. Most importantly, the past year was very instructive in this respect inasmuch as it made me realize that I need to develop a more precise timeline for the completion of my final assignments, starting to work on them earlier in the semester and taking the time to revise them more than once.
Regarding my future direction of study, I am still quite undecided as to what particular line of research I shall purse. I would like to frame a research project that could somehow include the work of different authors prominent between the end of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. In particular I have in mind philosophers like Peirce, James, Royce, Bergson, Blondel, Husserl and Scheler, with respect to their philosophical contribution to questions on subjectivity, selfhood, rationality, the nature of truth and reality, methods of pursuing and attaining knowledge, the relation between action and knowledge, self-knowledge, desire, affectivity and personal fulfillment. But I am also interested in investigating those motivations that brought philosophers like Levinas and Derrida, among others, to overcome that (epistemological-metaphysical) paradigm of thought which the aforementioned authors are often said to a-critically accept and reproduce. Before putting myself on a more precise road of inquiry, however, I want to take advantage of my second year of classes to make the acquaintance with certain authors and movements that I have not yet had the occasion to examine. In particular, I am thinking to the philosophical revolution introduced by Wittgenstein (and the important influence he had upon contemporary mainstream analytic philosophy) and the existential phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty.
While my actual horizon of interests is too broad for it not to result extremely vague and fragmented, I do have a precise (though still confused) question that guide my studies, namely: what is the nature of that kind of “reason” that, before determining itself as theoretical or practical, contemplative or instrumental, etc., “perceives” those ethical and esthetic ideals that guide our daily life and in relation to which we establish ourselves as self-conscious, human subjects? While this question situates itself in the general perspective of a philosophical anthropology, its immediate implication calls for the development of a phenomenological analysis of the normative structure of rationality, especially of that aspect of reason that our philosophical tradition has always called the “will”.
I am more and more persuaded that the department to which I am proud to belong as a graduate student represents an excellent ground for the clarification, development and elaboration of my aforementioned philosophical interests. At the beginning of the second year of my PhD, I look forward to progress toward an always-greater personal and philosophical maturation.
I. Academic Progress
In my first year in the doctoral program in Philosophy at The Pennsylvania State University, I discovered many of my strengths and weaknesses and areas for future research by paying attention to the success and failure of my work. For instance, my first attempt at writing the paper for Dr. Bernasconi’s Medieval Ethics seminar revealed both the paper’s lack of focus and my lack of knowledge in certain topic-relevant areas. To make up for the lack of knowledge, I researched my paper topic independently. This research taught me that I must learn to recognize what my argument needs to be successful and how I can use my research to provide that support. Currently, I have a hard time recognizing when an argument is complete and persuasive. Specifically, I am often unsure what needs to be said and what can be left out. As a result, my papers tend to contain both superfluous material and incomplete arguments. To make up for the paper’s lack of focus, I reorganized the paper as a response to one of my sources. I learned in this process that I can write a more engaging and pertinent scholarly essay by responding to recent work on a topic that I also find philosophically interesting. However, this essay was not successful in the end for two reasons: one, I did not understand the genre well enough to present a compelling response and two, I did not leave myself enough time to reorganize the entire paper effectively. These two reasons mark two more areas for improvement: one, I need to learn how to write this kind of essay so that it is more focused, argumentatively sound, and persuasive and two, I need to manage my time to identify possible weaknesses in my paper sooner.
The strengths and weaknesses revealed writing for Dr. Schmidt’s and Dr. Bowman’s Hegel seminars differ from those discussed above. For each course, I wrote 5, 5 to 8 page papers throughout the semester. I consider my short essay titled “Individuality Real In and For Itself’s Criterion of Truth and Its Initial Failure in the Work” for Dr. Bowman’s seminar to be my first year’s strongest essay. It is my strongest because it achieves the task of being at once exegetical and interpretive, it is the most well-organized and well-argued, and it shows a nuanced attention to the text. However, there are certain paragraphs with messy argumentation and clunky sentences. The essay also lacks development of its theme in relation to the larger movement of Hegel’s text. This is a weakness that many of my shorter papers share. I would like to develop themes or arguments in the light of the text as a whole and, if possible, in the light of their historical development, particularly when I’m writing for a course in an intended AOS or AOC.
II. Research Trajectory and Future Coursework
After my first year at Penn State, I plan to develop my knowledge of German Idealism an contemporary French philosophy in order to claim both as an AOS. Concerning an AOS in German Idealism, I began a profile for this area by taking Dr. Schmidt’s, Dr. Bowman’s, and Dr. Mensch’s seminars on Kant and Hegel in my first year. My profile for an AOS in contemporary French philosophy began with Dr. Lawlor’s Foucault seminar. In the coming fall, I plan to take Dr. Bernasconi’s Nietzsche seminar, Dr. Colapietro’s Wittgenstein seminar, and Dr. Schmidt’s Heidegger seminar. Outside of their own philosophical contributions, Nietzsche’s, Heidegger’s and Wittgenstein’s critiques of their German idealist predecessors and their influence on 20th century French philosophers such as Derrida, Foucault, and Deleuze (and 20th century philosophy generally) makes their work crucial areas of study for me.
In both of these historical areas, my topical interests concern their metaphysical and ontological claims. For example, I am interested in how Hegel responds to and criticizes claims to knowledge of immediacy as well as claims of a substance-accident model of objective reality in the Sense-Certainty and Perception sections of the Phenomenology, respectively. I am also interested in how the metaphysical commitments of these thinkers require them to formulate consistent political and ethical positions. For example, Kant’s transcendental idealism allows him to distinguish between transcendental and empirical freedom, so while he can argue that theoretically freedom and nature are compatible, he must also design a conception of politics that reconciles our innate freedom with the fact that our external manifestations of this freedom impede and limit the free actions of others.
Dr. Christman’s Social Contract Theory seminar in the spring of 2011 led me to consider an AOC in both social/political philosophy and ethics. Here I am concerned with the concepts of rights and agency and with arguments that attempt to establish their grounds. Dr. Christman’s and Dr. Bernasconi’s seminars last year, and Dr. Clark-Miller’s course on feminist ethics in the coming fall, will hopefully establish a strong foundation for such concentration. In addition to my philosophical interest in all of these areas, I hope that both my Areas of Specialization and my Areas of Concentration will make for an attractive and marketable research and teaching portfolio. However, I am aware that this trajectory is still quite vague. I believe this is because I have not had the time to become familiar with the ins and outs of these areas’ respective discourses. I see these areas of specialization and concentration as my general interests in which I hope to develop specific research agendas as I continue my education in the doctoral program at Penn State.