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June 18–21, 2015 • Athens, Greece • Hotel Titania

This symposium seeks to explore the past, present, and future of the humanities, and what the humanities and the world of learning can contribute to the world today.

Traditionally, the study of the humanities has provided an avenue for exploring and understanding the questions of meaning in life, for attaining a level of cultural literacy, and preparing individuals to think critically—both in daily life and about the larger issues facing human society—providing the essential resources necessary for developing an integral vision of what it means to be a flourishing and well-developed human being.

Moreover, the transcendent dimension of the humanities invites us to go beyond our limited selves and to explore our own relation to larger spheres of concern. Whether entering into dialogue with the minds, ideas, and cultures of the past, or the larger human concerns that extend beyond us as individuals today, the humanities have provided a vital resource for exploring our own relationships to society and the greater world. Is this aspect of the humanities still being sufficiently emphasized, and to what degree are the humanities still capable of opening us up to larger world in which we participate?

It could be argued that, in recent years, the humanities have come under attack, both inside and outside of the academic world. The increased emphasis on education as a vocational enterprise, the increased emphasis on technique over content, the postmodern impulse, and the idea that the study of the humanities should emulate the methods of the exact sciences, have all brought into question the contemporary value—and even the future—of the humanities.

This symposium seeks to explore how these developments came about and, more importantly, how a renewed vision and sense of purpose could reestablish the value and integrity of the humanities in the cultivation of human life.

Athens Hotel Titania

Athens Hotel Titania

Format, Plan, and Location

The symposium will consist of ten to twelve participants offering 45-minute to one-hour presentations that relate to the themes of the symposium. Our dialogues will be recorded and the presentations will form the basis of a forthcoming book. Provisions will also be made for people who cannot attend the event to share their ideas.

The symposium will be held at the Hotel Titania in Athens, June 18–21, 2015. The hotel features excellent facilities with a view of the Acropolis and offers moderately priced rooms at 85 euros per night.

Proposals for Presentations

If you are interested in joining us for the symposium, please send us a short description of your intended presentation. Include the title, a short description, your contact information and organizational affiliation, and email it to: athenssymposium2015@gmail.com.

All proposals must be received by February 28, 2015, and the symposium program will be finalized shortly after that date.

The symposium is being cosponsored by the Cosmopolis Project and the Association for the Study of Esotericism.

To receive further information on the event, including how you can participate by sharing your thoughts and questions, please subscribe to the occasional newsletter of the Cosmopolis Project on the right sidebar of this website.

Related Articles

“A specialist is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing.” — Quotation from the 1920s, attributed to William J. Mayo, a doctor at the Mayo Clinic

For the early Greek philosophers like Plato and the Pythagoreans, philosophy was the search for an integrated worldview in which all branches of human knowledge and concern were implicated. They viewed the cosmos as a whole system in which human beings participated, and assumed that human knowledge, at its deepest, must relate to the living unity of the world’s integrated structure.

As time went on, this began to change, first with Aristotle’s school, which undertook programs of ongoing, systematic research. For Plato, the study of ethics could not be separated from cosmology and other fields of inquiry. By contrast, the third head of Aristotle’s school, Strato of Lampsacus, was the first example of “the pure scientist”: he focused only on the study of mechanical and pneumatic devices and believed that this kind of pure research had little to do with ethics or social concerns.

As human knowledge expanded, the demand for specialization, naturally, increased. Our modern word scientist was only coined in 1833, and since then both information and knowledge have exploded exponentially. Specialization is needed, but human knowledge at its deepest is both analytic and synthetic. Through analysis, we take things apart intellectually; but through synthesis, we put things together to create a meaningful worldview.

In the modern world, however, things have become increasingly one-sided. As John Naisbitt pointed out in his classic line, “We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge,” and the thought was expressed in the verse of T. S. Eliot too:

Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

Seeing the World as a Whole — and What Happens When That Vision is Lost

We can see the effects of our one-sided devotion to the power of analytical knowledge (and lack of an integrated worldview) in the recently published ecological statistic that over the past forty years human population on the planet has doubled while, at the same time, the number of wild animals on Earth has declined by 50 percent.

As David McConville of the Buckminster Fuller Institute has noted, right at the very moment when we have the greatest need ever for a well-functioning worldview,

The radical fragmentation of knowledge is making it difficult to understand any kind of big picture. Academia now has 8,000 disciplines, 50,000 journals, and over a million articles published every year. A visualization from the University of California–San Diego shows how few disciplines actually draw from, or even reference, fields other than their own. We are facing a time of extreme hyperspecialization.

“This visualization from the University of California–San Diego shows how few disciplines actually draw from, or even reference, fields other than their own. We are facing a time of extreme hyperspecialization.” — David McConville

“This visualization from the University of California–San Diego shows how few disciplines actually draw from, or even reference, fields other than their own. We are facing a time of extreme hyperspecialization.” — David McConville

What this illustrates is that we have been very good at taking the world apart. But now that we have taken it apart, how do we put it back together?

“I’m Sorry . . . But That’s Not My Field”

Traditionally, this is where philosophy and the humanities should step in. Science can show us how to do certain things, but cannot offer much guidance as to why we should take a particular path—or even if we should go down that path in the first place. Unfortunately, it seems, the original mandate and spirit of the humanities has been largely lost. For example, as Arthur Krystal has brilliantly argued in a recent article on “The Shrinking World of Ideas,” in the humanities today the meaning of ideas has lost its importance; it has been replaced instead by an overwhelming shift to theories about how ideas are produced.

In the end, the kind of crises we face (like losing half the world’s wildlife in forty years) are profoundly systemic in nature. Simultaneously, the academic world is devoted to the creation of specialists who, by their very training, are ill-equipped to think in terms of whole systems. By definition, when confronted by the most defining issues of our time, someone who has emerged from our university system might honestly reply, “I’m sorry, but that’s not my field.”

Contemplating the Future of Education

If the educational system begins to fail us in specific ways, that is a clear invitation to once again consider the spirit of the humanities, the liberal arts, our underlying philosophies of education, and the historical roots of our Western traditions.

Taking up this invitation, the Cosmopolis Project is co-sponsoring a series of dialogues and presentations that will take place in Athens, June 18–21, 2015, entitled “The Humanities, the Experience of the Transcendent, and the Future of Higher Education.” By the transcendent we mean that which exists beyond our limited selves, including our relationships with society and the greater world.

We invite you to read about this gathering, which we hope will result in a published book. And we are inviting everyone reading this to share your thoughts about these issues, so your thoughts can be part of this discussion.

— David Fideler

 

Related Links

 

David McConville: “The radical fragmentation of knowledge is making it difficult to understand any kind of big picture.”

David McConville: “The radical fragmentation of knowledge is making it difficult to understand any kind of big picture.”

In this brilliant and superbly illustrated 41-minute presentation, David McConville, President of the Buckminster Fuller Institute, uses the geometry of the sphere as a lens and speculum through which to visualize the relationships between humanity, worldview, culture, and the greater world in which we live.

Starting with the image of the sphere in religions and cosmology, McConville takes us on a historical and cultural voyage to the emergence of the spherical planetarium dome as a tool for envisioning our relationship to the world.

Planetary data visualizations make the invisible visible. “The economy, we are discovering, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the planet’s biosphere, and not the other way around.” — David McConville

Planetary data visualizations make the invisible visible. “The economy, we are discovering, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the planet’s biosphere, and not the other way around.” — David McConville

Drawing on the work of Buckminster Fuller, McConville addresses one of the key dilemmas and ironies of our time: Despite the fact that we are now altering the structure of the Earth on a planetary scale and every major ecosystem is in decline, due to hyperspecialization and the radical fragmentation of knowledge, most academic disciplines are powerless to address the kinds of systemic crises we now face.

Through the image of the sphere and its use as a tool for immersive data visualization, we are now able to make invisible relationships visible on a planetary scale.

As McConville beautifully illustrates, this provides a possibility “to transcend disciplinary boundaries to create true transdisciplinary discourse.”

— David Fideler

“Valorizing the Sphere” – David McConville from Society for Arts and Technology on Vimeo.

David McConville is a media artist who designed immersive visualization experiences to provide new perspectives on humanity’s home in the cosmos. He is President of the Buckminster Fuller Institute, a non-profit organization facilitating convergences across design, art, science, and technology to identify and cultivate whole systems strategies for addressing complex global challenges.

He is also co-founder of The Elumenati, a full service design and engineering firm specializing in the development and deployment of immersive projection environments for clients ranging from art festivals to space agencies, and creative director of the Worldviews Network, a collaboration of artists, scientists, and educators using storytelling and visualization to facilitate dialogues about community resilience in science centers across the United States.

One of the most unpredicted outcomes of the space program was the Gaia hypothesis, the theory the biosphere itself works to regulate the temperature and chemical content of the Earth’s atmosphere. According to Gaia theory, life is a planetary-wide phenomenon that alters the environment on a planetary scale.

james-lovelock-smallIn 1961, atmospheric scientist James Lovelock was hired by NASA to study the detection of life on Mars. Lovelock looked at the atmospheres of Venus, the Earth, and Mars, and concluded that the presence of life on any planet would be reflected by chemical changes in the atmosphere of that planet. What Lovelock saw was straightforward but startling (see figure below). The atmospheres of Venus and Mars contained over 95% carbon dioxide with only trace amounts of oxygen. By contrast, the atmosphere of the Earth contains 21% oxygen with only a trace amount of carbon dioxide. The average surface temperature on the earth is 55˚ Fahrenheit, because the carbon dioxide level is so low. But without the presence of life on Earth, carbon dioxide would make up 98% of the atmosphere and the average surface temperature of the planet would be somewhere between 464 and 644˚ Fahrenheit. Without the presence of life, the climate of the Earth would be incredibly inhospitable.

Table of Planetary Atmospheres, after Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia.

Table of Planetary Atmospheres, after Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia.

When the Earth was formed billions of years ago, the atmosphere was almost entirely made out of carbon dioxide, just like Mars and Venus. But with the emergence of blue-green bacteria and photosynthesis, carbon dioxide became a life-giving food. In the alchemy of Earth’s primordial oceans, the living metabolism of bacteria transmuted carbon dioxide and other elements into an expanding tapestry of life. The metabolic activity of the first bacteria started to give birth to a planetary-wide physiology. These first blue-green bacteria removed carbon from the atmosphere, which cooled down the planet, and gave off oxygen as a waste product. But around two billion years ago, the process gave rise to a planetary crisis—an “oxygen holocaust”—when too much oxygen had accumulated. Oxygen itself was highly toxic to the first bacteria.[1] This planetary-wide crisis provided a window of opportunity, however, when a new type of blue-green bacteria finally learned to synthesize oxygen into life-energy. Over immense periods of time, the biosphere transformed the atmosphere into its present composition. The atmosphere so composed was an atmosphere friendly to life, both in terms of its content and its stable, hospitable temperature.

While other planetary scientists had supported a “Goldilocks theory”—assuming that the temperature and atmospheric composition of the Earth had been “just right” for the emergence of life by chance—Lovelock showed that life itself had altered the planetary environment. Lovelock proposed that “the evolution of the species and the evolution of their environment are tightly coupled together as a single and inseparable process,”[2] a claim that was supported by his colleague, the microbiologist Lynn Margulis. Moreover, Lovelock and Margulis claimed that Gaia was a testable, scientific hypothesis.

During the past 4.5 billion years, solar luminosity has increased by at least 10–30%.[3] But the Gaian superorganism has successfully maintained a steady temperature through its metabolic processes. When critics complained that Lovelock’s theory smacked of teleology or design, he created a simple computer model called Daisyworld. Daisyworld contains two types of daisies, white and black, that naturally live in a certain temperature range and absorb different levels of heat. If the temperature is low on Daisyworld, the black daisies flourish because they absorb more heat. This causes the planet to warm up. If the temperature is high on Daisyworld, the white daisies flourish and reflect heat back off into space. Even if the luminosity of Daisyworld’s sun increases substantially, Daisyworld itself maintains a constant temperature—until the environmental conditions caused by the solar warming become just too extreme for the biota to regulate. Lovelock had proven that life can act like a planetary thermostat, and more complex models with twenty shades of daisies produced the same result.[4]

In addition to holding the temperature constant by reducing carbon dioxide, life has regulated the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere. Right now oxygen makes up 21% of the atmosphere, a level that must have remained constant for over 300 million years. If the concentration of oxygen was just a few points higher, devastating forest fires would engulf the planet. But if the oxygen level was a few points lower, animal life would perish.

As biologist Lynn Margulis points out, “life does not exist on Earth’s surface so much as it is Earth’s surface. . . . Earth is no more a planet-sized chunk of rock inhabited with life than your body is a skeleton infested with cells.”[5] Gaia’s radical challenge to traditional Darwinian biology is that life influences the environment. For Darwin, life was essentially passive, a process that was forced to adapt to a specific environment. Gaia theory shows that life and environment evolve as a single, coevolutionary process. On Earth, all life is an embodiment of the planetary environment, but the planetary environment is also product of life. Gaia theory and the new biology embodies the circular, metabolic logic of life. The universe brings forth life and mind—but life and mind work to shape the universe. Life and environment are folded back on themselves in a self-referential, evolutionary spiral. Gaia is not a single organism, but a superorganism. Like the single organisms of which it is comprised, it is self-regulating and autopoietic. Like my own body composed of many individual cells, Gaia has its own metabolism. As we breathe and exhale, we participate in the life-breath of the entire biosphere. Gaia theory is strongly supported by complexity science, which shows how complex systems with feedback loops spontaneously self-organize and develop metabolic patterns. From the Gaian perspective, our own lives are totally inseparable from the life of the larger planet.

 


[1] For a discussion of the oxygen holocaust, see chapter six in Margulis and Sagan, Microcosmos: Four Billion Years of Microbial Evolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

[2] James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia (New York: W. W. Norton, 1988), 18. As he writes, “Through Gaia theory I now see the system of the material Earth and the living organisms on it, evolving so that self-regulation is an emergent property. In such a system active feedback processes operate automatically and solar energy sustains comfortable conditions for life. The conditions are only constant in the short term and evolve in synchrony with the changing needs of the biota as it evolves. Life and its environment are so closely couple that evolution concerns Gaia, not the organisms or the environment taken separately” (19–20).

[3] M. Newman, “Evolution of the Solar Constant,” in C. Ponnamperuma and Lynn Margulis, editors, Limits to Life (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1980). See also Lawrence Joseph, Gaia: The Growth of an Idea (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), 121–25.

[4] See Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia, chapter 3.

[5] Margulis and Sagan, What is Life? (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999), 28.


Reprinted from chapter 11 of Restoring the Soul of the World: Our Living Bond with Nature’s Intelligence by David Fideler. Copyright © 2014 by David Fideler. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in any form without the written permission of the author.

 Viewed from the distance of the moon, the astonishing thing about the earth, catching the breath, is that it is alive. The photographs show the dry, pounded surface of the moon in the foreground, dead as an old bone. Aloft, floating free beneath the moist, gleaming membrane of the bright blue sky, is the rising earth, the only exuberant thing in this part of the cosmos. If you could look long enough, you would see the swirling of the great drifts of white cloud, covering and uncovering the half-hidden masses of land. If you had been looking a very long, geologic time, you could have seen the continents themselves in motion, drifting apart on their crustal plates, held aloft by the fire beneath. It has the organized, self-contained look of a live creature, full of information, marvelously skilled in handling the sun. —Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell


“Viewed from the distance of the moon, the astonishing thing about the earth, catching the breath, is that it is alive. The photographs show the dry, pounded surface of the moon in the foreground, dead as an old bone. Aloft, floating free beneath the moist, gleaming membrane of the bright blue sky, is the rising earth, the only exuberant thing in this part of the cosmos. If you could look long enough, you would see the swirling of the great drifts of white cloud, covering and uncovering the half-hidden masses of land. If you had been looking a very long, geologic time, you could have seen the continents themselves in motion, drifting apart on their crustal plates, held aloft by the fire beneath. It has the organized, self-contained look of a live creature, full of information, marvelously skilled in handling the sun.” — Lewis Thomas, The Lives of a Cell

Anthony Rooley

Anthony Rooley

“The art of lute playing is not about projection, it’s about drawing in.” — Anthony Rooley

The lute is the quietest and one of the most subtle, evocative instruments. In the words of Anthony Rooley, “Everything about the lute has symbolism attached to it; and you can’t avoid becoming more and more aware of philosophy if you’re a lute player.”

In this thirty-minute presentation and performance, Rooley discusses the history and symbolism of the lute, its relationship to the Renaissance philosophy of Marsilio Ficino, and how such a wonderful thing as the lute became “obsolete.”

Perhaps most importantly, Rooley discusses how music can transport us beyond our limited selves and awareness to experience a taste of a larger reality.

 

Related Resources

  • Performance: Revealing the Orpheus Within by Anthony Rooley (Shaftesbury: Element Books, 1991)